“Do you guys sit in Costa?” a young lady asked her long-bearded Muslim co-worker when he suggested going to one of the renowned British coffeehouse’s branches along with workmates to plan for a business meeting. “Yes; where do you think we would hang out?” he replied, without realising then that the brief conversation would trigger the formation of a group that is now effectively working on bridging the gap between Islamists and liberals at a very critical time.
Mohamed Tolba, a Salafist who works in Smart Village, did not feel offended by his colleague’s question. In fact, the incident inspired him to form a group, ‘Salafyo Costa’, not only to improve the image of Salafists, who are viewed by many in Egypt as Islamic extremists, but also to create a community in which people of different religions, political views and lifestyles can live together peacefully and harmoniously.
Consisting of Islamists and liberals, as well as a few Copts, who all support coexistence and deplore hard-line perspectives, Salafyo Costa, whose logo is similar to that of the international coffee-shop chain, launched a Facebook group and fan page that by press time included 7,347 and 9,947 members respectively. Their aim is to put across their principles in a moderate fashion and implement their vision of coexistence. So far, their experience has been fruitful.
“It all started as a joke, a humorous reaction to the lady’s question,” the constantly jovial Tolba, whose brother is a liberal, told Ahram Online. “Later on, we decided to establish a group that includes varied people. Liberals, conservatives, Muslims and Christians accepting one another despite their differences is the concept we are promoting, so we can’t say that we are from the Islamic current,” the group’s founder explained.
Costa’s Salafists first came to public attention when they produced a 12-minute long comedy named Ayna Wedni (Where is my Ear?), featuring Tolba among others, in an attempt to show how Islamists and liberals could have the wrong idea about each other.
The name of the movie refers to a notorious sectarian hate crime that took place late in March and saw a group of alleged Salafists in Qena assault a Copt, cut off his ear and set his car ablaze as punishment because they believed he had rented his apartment to two Muslim females, whom the violent Islamists also thought were prostitutes.
The group also held a fixed football match between Salafists and Copts that ended in a 6-6 draw, with the up-and-coming comedian Basem Youssef acting as commentator, and one of his upcoming episodes will be based on the game.
The match witnessed several incidents that intended to highlight the drawbacks of hardliners from either side in a witty manner. “Through these kind of activities, we want to prove our viewpoint,” Tolba stated.
One of the few Christian members of Salafyo Costa is Mina, a student at the English department in Cairo University’s faculty of the arts. He is nicknamed “the Coptic Salafist” and acts as one of the administrators of the Salafayo Costa Facebook group. “As a Copt and a liberal I differ considerably from the Salafists, but I’m enjoying my time with them and this is the purpose of the group; the fact that we are different doesn’t mean we can’t coexist,” he told Ahram Online.
“For instance, as a Copt I would like to live in a community where no one tells me that I am an atheist. I shouldn’t insult Islam either ... Before the [25 January] revolution, we used to be afraid of each other, but now we have to know more about other people.”
Salafyo Costa in Tahrir Square
Like many other movements and political forces, Salafyo Costa has been taking part in the ongoing sit-in in Tahrir Square, having set up a tent in the middle of the once-grassy central island, surrounded by numerous other tents belonging to many people from across the political spectrum and all walks of life.
With their colloquial, hip, yet polite, language, genuine sense of humour and friendliness, the group’s members have no problem socialising with the rest of the protesters, including the April 6 Youth Movement, which has been subject to intense criticism and public scrutiny since the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) accused it in a recent communiqué of “attempting to cause the army and the people to fall out with each other”.
“Our decision to participate in the sit-in was not based on religious motives, but political ones,” Ahmed Samir, another bearded Salafayo Costa member who was as cheerful as the rest of his friends, told Ahram Online.
“We are here for the same reasons as everyone else, in other words, the demands of the revolution. It was also a great opportunity to communicate with the rest of the demonstrators; they are all dear friends to us. For instance, our close neighbours here are liberals who are supporting [presidential hopeful Mohamed] ElBaradei and our relationship with them can’t get any better.”
Tolba added: “We are the link between Islamists and the rest of the demonstrators in Tahrir Square. We are trying to tighten the gap and end the mutual fear between both parties. Some Islamists are inflexible and vice-versa.” “There are many differences but eventually there is one huge common ground called Egypt.”
The role of Salafyo Costa may yet be crucial, amid fears that this Friday could witness bloody confrontations in Tahrir Square.
Several Islamic forces, including Al-Jamaa Al-Islamiya, have been planning to rally “peacefully” in the revolution’s epicentre in what is expected to be the largest-ever gathering of Egypt’s Islamists. They were said to be planning to “stress the Islamic identity of the country”, which does not appeal to some secularists and liberals.
Adding fuel to the fire, Al-Jamaa Al-Islamiya’s representatives were deemed somewhat aggressive while announcing their participation. Essam Darbala, the head of the Shura Council, reportedly said: “We have no intention of using force, but whoever tries to use it against us will regret it.”
For his side, Samir said: “[Salafi] cleric Mohamed Abdel Maksoud was here in Tahrir Square yesterday [Sunday]. He tried to reassure protesters that nothing will happen.
“Al-Jamaa Al-Islamiya are provocative from the way I see it … We are working along with others on easing tensions in Tahrir Square ahead of this Friday.”
A group of the Muslim Brotherhood youth had earlier urged that Friday’s proposed mass protest be postponed, saying the time is not right for such a huge congregation.