Why you should care
The Arab world’s most populous nation is sending clerics to cafés to preach moderate Islam in a bid to defeat radicalism.
Engineering graduate Ramy Mohamed’s eyes turn watery from smoke as he takes a deep puff from a hookah at Cairo’s Kawkab al-Sharq café. His eyes are fixed on a big TV screen; he’s watching a soccer game. But earlier in the day, the 32-year-old had an unlikely contender for his attention. A cleric in a brown robe had entered the café to preach moderate Islam to patrons. What was a novel experience for most in the café may now become routine.
Stung by increasing terror attacks — including on the country’s Coptic Christian community — Egypt’s government and security agencies are turning to cafés to win young hearts and minds. The Waqfs (religious endowments) Ministry is banding with Cairo’s famed school of Islamic learning, the Al-Azhar University, to send clerics to the country’s most popular cafés. The goal? To proactively reach out with moderate lectures and cut off the supply of youth to extremist groups.
A café is an ideal target.
Mohamed Abdel Halim, Cairo lawyer and frequent café-goer.
The initiative was launched in April 2017, following terrorist attacks on St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria and St. George Church in the Nile Delta town of Tanta on Palm Sunday, which left 44 Copts dead. But it has gained momentum only this year. Starting with cafés in Alexandria, the government and Al-Azhar have now identified about 20 cafés in each of the country’s governorates, or states, that they will target. The visits won’t be one-offs — clerics are visiting these cafés repeatedly on Fridays. According to Mohieldin Afifi, Secretary-General of Al-Azhar’s Islamic Research Academy, clerics have already held more than 2,000 meetings at cafés nationwide. Now, the café sermons are starting in Cairo too.
Not everyone is taken by the initiative. “I don’t care what he says about the hereafter. I want a job,” says Mohamed bluntly about his experience with the café cleric. But to others, it’s a smart move.
“It’s rather like a sales strategy, as companies send cohorts of salesmen to places where consumers can be easily reached out,” says 58-year-old lawyer Mohamed Abdel Halim, who has heard one of these sermons at Al-Boustan café, also in Cairo. “A café is an ideal target.”
In the past, coffee and politics haven’t always gone well together for Egypt’s rulers. Egypt’s cafés were vital political platforms ahead of the 1952 revolution that toppled the monarchy — their role captured by Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz in his novels. In 2011, when longtime leader Hosni Mubarak was removed from power during the Arab Spring, the airing of political dissent was common in the country’s cafés. But under Mohamed Morsi, who came to power after Mubarak’s ouster [but himself lost power in a 2013 public uprising], the public space for political debates shrank amid fears of less tolerance. Today, soccer matches on television and social gatherings dominate Egypt’s cafés. Injecting politico-religious teachings into that ambience could bring politics back to the cafés.
But Egypt’s government may have few options but to reach out to dissatisfied youth. Like Mohamed, around 800,000 new job seekers join the labor market annually, data from the state-run Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS) shows. Unemployment — though less than the 11.9 percent in the second quarter of 2017 — was still high at 9.9 percent the same quarter this year, according to CAPMAS.
Among the most successful industries in Egypt are the more than 1.5 million cafés in the country of 96 million people. Licensed cafés make around EGP 2 billion ($112.3 million) in net profits annually, CAPMAS data shows. That makes cafés ideal targets for sermons on moderate Islam. Sometimes up to three clerics visit one café together, says Mahmoud Ibrahim, one of the preachers who has joined the initiative.
But many experts have doubts about whether the initiative will succeed. Egypt has too many often-conflicting Islamic religious authorities, including Al-Azhar, the Waqfs Ministry and the Dar al-Ifta (the religious authority for fatwas, or edicts based on Islamic law), says Islamic researcher Maher Farghali, who calls the café clerics effort “a media show.”
“There isn’t an overall policy,” says Farghali, nor “a long-term strategy.”
Farghali points to past efforts of innovative solutions for preaching moderate Islam that he says failed because of inconsistency and chaotic planning. He cites the example of the “Fatwa Kiosks” initiative, also launched by the Waqfs Ministry. Started two years ago, the project involved installing a kiosk at each subway metro station in Cairo, where clerics would dish out fast edicts and religious opinions based on Sharia, or Islamic law. Today, the initiative is widely viewed as having failed. “The whole project was a big fiasco,” says Farghali.
The key, if the café clerics initiative is to succeed, will be for the Waqfs Ministry to learn from those mistakes, says Ashraf Saad Mahmoud, a preacher. “People go to kiosks to buy newspaper(s) … but never to get a fatwa from a cleric in an underground metro station,” says Mahmoud. He thinks the goal of the cafés project is great but argues that it “should have been well-studied by a special task force capable of strategic planning and management” instead of just by religious scholars and bureaucrats.
Some of that sentiment is evident with Mohamed at Kawkab al-Sharq café too. “The sheikh preached about the need to understand the true meaning of Islam,” he recalls. “If I need a sermon I would go to a mosque.” Mohamed also highlights the inherently secular nature of cafés, as he points to a fellow patron. “That guy over there is Hany Girgis. He is a Copt and jobless too. Should the church think of something similar? This is a café for all Egyptians. We need no clerics.”
Still, Egypt needs a moderate version of Islam, says Halim, and if approached smartly with independent preachers — who aren’t employees of the Waqfs Ministry — the initiative may stand a chance. “The preachers should look like ordinary people,” he says.
Keeping it less formal than at a mosque is very much part of the strategy, says Ibrahim, the cleric. The meetings, he says, are “a good opportunity to talk to the young people at the places where they feel at ease.”
For the moment, Mohamed is more interested in the soccer match than the sermon at the café. Changing that will prove the real test for Ibrahim and his colleagues.