Salafyo Costa: Egyptian Inclusivity

By Jayson Casper - Guest contributor | Dec 09, 2013
Salafyo Costa: Egyptian Inclusivity

Salafyo Costa were once the darlings of the media. Featured both in Egyptian outlets[1] and foreign publications such as CNN, the Los Angeles Times, and the Huffington Post,[2] the groundbreaking youth movement founded in April 2011 brought together ultraconservative Salafis, Muslim Brotherhood supporters, political liberals and leftists, and Coptic Christians. Together they forged a common identity promoting both the goals of the January 25 revolution and the necessity of unity in an increasingly polarized society.

They implemented this vision through fun. Salafyo Costa organized a soccer match pitting Salafis against Copts,[3] they produced films satirizing political and religious divisions,[4] and they went on field trips to Upper Egypt for charity campaigns. And they lived the life of street demonstrations against military rule. Throughout it all, the 120 members raised suspicions in their original communities, accustomed as these communities generally were to non-interaction with the religious or political “other.”

Salafyo Costa continued on relatively seamlessly until the Tamarod campaign against Mohamed Morsi. During the campaign, the group made the controversial decision to support the call for early elections. The liberal media heralded their courage, while Islamists hurled criticism, finding confirmation of earlier suspicions about the group. Following Morsi’s July 3 ouster, the media forgot them. And then they began to break rank.

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Charismatic Salafi Mohamed Tolba founded Salafyo Costa almost on a whim. Following the revolution he lamented seeing popular representations of Salafis as backwards and poor. A graduate of the American University in Cairo and fluent in English, he jokingly named the group after a popular upscale coffee chain he frequented. He and a few friends began appearing at revolutionary events, and he was keen to invite Copts as well. Having suffered discrimination as a Salafi, he wanted to make a different disenfranchised minority feel welcome.

Tolba demonstrated his welcome by officially participating in the one-year anniversary protest of the Maspero Massacre, in which 28 mostly Coptic protestors were killed. This act attracted Coptic members as well as Sherine Afifi, a Muslim and self-described liberal-leftist who was impressed by Salafyo Costa’s commitment to inclusion. Afifi stated that she was quite nervous amid “the long beards” in the first meetings she attended, but that her subsequent friendships with the group’s members “made diversity second nature.”

Maspero was just one of Salafyo Costa’s political decisions, but in the early days nearly all members were united against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), so there was little internal controversy. But then the Tamarod campaign became a point of contention.

Tolba, though disapproving of Morsi, initially opposed any involvement in Tamarod. He viewed Tamarod as calling for the removal of one slice of Egyptian society—the Muslim Brotherhood—which was against the very ethos of Salafyo Costa. Furthermore, the group had an unofficial but clear policy not to back any position that might divide the group. They refrained from statements on elections and the controversial constitutional referendum, though they freely criticized the authorities.

But Bassem Victor, one of the first Copts to join, who was, with Tolba, one of the five “guards” of the movement, pushed for Salafyo Costa to support Tamarod publicly. When backed by an additional ten founding members outside the guards, Tolba agreed to allow the group’s internal democracy to operate. Following several days of intense debate on Facebook, two-thirds of the movement voted to endorse Tamarod. Tolba found himself in the difficult position of representing the position in the media.

Nagwa Raouf was one of the first members to resign due to this position. Founder of the Imarat al-Insan development organization in a downtrodden Cairo neighborhood, she legally facilitated Salafyo Costa’s charity work through her center. Raouf supported the practice of mixed groups of Egyptians serving mixed communities, and she was patient with the underlying anti-Brotherhood sentiment she sensed among many group members—especially as she also criticized many of Morsi’s decisions and found the Brotherhood domineering. But she believed that for the good of the country, Morsi should be supported.

Tolba, Victor, and others tried to bring her back, and she did return, though temporarily. But Afifi confesses that in the enflamed atmosphere engulfing Egypt, many in Salafyo Costa could have been more sensitive. Tolba admits that Raouf was teased about her Morsi sympathies. Between the endorsement of Tamarod and the hundreds of deaths suffered at Rabaa al-Adaweya Square in August, he counts 15 members who departed. Some were vocally angry, while others were silent. But over ten percent of the group left in protest.

After Rabaa, Salafyo Costa issued a statement announcing its temporary withdrawal from politics until the national scene became clearer. Internally, however, disagreements continued. Some wanted to keep rallying against the Brotherhood, while others thought the military deserved fierce criticism. In the middle of their public silence, Salafyo Costa experienced an ouster of their own.

A founding Coptic member, Mina Mansour, told Tolba that his days as leader were finished. All guards would be removed, all committee heads replaced, and new elections held. There was no official vote to remove him, but there was little negative feedback on Facebook. Afifi supported the move, as she was frustrated by the failure of the guards to police the culture of Salafyo Costa, which she felt had played host to too many hostile words.

Tolba submitted, but on one condition: that the new leadership would continue the self-evaluation he had begun months earlier. Tolba had divided members into groups, asking each about Salafyo Costa and its purpose. The answers would be filtered to organizers and then to the guards, who would return them to the groups for internal critique.

Mansour had no objection, and guard elections followed. A pro-Tamarod Salafi won the first position, followed by a Copt. Tolba, in a three-way tie with a female member and a leftist, qualified for the final of the five guard positions. Mansour finished a distant eighth, with Victor behind him. A pro-Morsi member unanimously won a key committee post. All accepted the results, and the internal review is currently being organized into a constitution.

Contrast the situation in Salafyo Costa with that of Egypt. Following the revolution, Egypt fractured, while Salafyo Costa, though their unity was tested, were determined to hold themselves together. In contrast to Egypt as a whole, the movement yielded to the will of the people in insurrection though this will was outside the process of legitimacy, and it then used the tools of democracy to re-form. And whereas Egypt is about to receive its second constitution crafted without full societal consensus, Salafyo Costa is currently determining its charter after a thorough participatory process.

“We revolted on January 25 to create our own manual, to write the rules of the game,” says Tolba. “But since February 11, every regime has imposed its own manual.”

Yet Salafyo Costa has stayed true to their ideals. Despite difficulties, growing pains, and losses, they continue the struggle to break down the barriers separating diverse groups. Maintaining a common commitment is obviously easier among dozens of members than millions of citizens, but in Salafyo Costa, Egypt is not without an example of inclusivity.




[1] Alastair Beach, “Salafyo Costa Aims to Put a New Face on Fundamentalism,” Egypt Independent, 5 June 2011, http://www.egyptindependent.com/news/salafyo-costa-aims-put-new-face-fundamentalism; Sherif Tarek, “Salafyo Costa: Working for Common Ground for Islamists and Liberals from Tahrir,” Ahram Online, 27 July 2011, http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/17405/Egypt/Politics-/Salafyo-Costa-Working-for-common-ground-for-Islami.aspx.

[2] Jeffrey Fleishman, “In Egypt, Young and Tech-Savvy Islamists Try to Project New Image,” Los Angeles Times, 13 October 2011, http://articles.latimes.com/2011/oct/13/world/la-fg-egypt-young-salafis-20111014; Shahira Amin, “Young Egyptians Use Facebook, Coffee to Bring Religions Together,” CNN, 14 December 2011, http://edition.cnn.com/2011/12/14/world/africa/cairo-coffeehouse-salafism/index.html?hpt=hp_c2; Nada Zohdy, “Salafyo Costa, Salafi Group, Works to Counter Intolerance,” Huffington Post, 12 October 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/common-ground-news-service/salafyo-costa-salafis-work-to-counter-intolerance_b_1957789.html