STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Now, fear of religious conservatives gave Egypt's ruling generals political cover to limit their country's democracy. And during our recent visit to Cairo, we went to meet a religious conservative. We found him in a satellite city of the metropolis, in a giant shopping complex called the Mall of Arabia.
This is a shopping mall to match anything in Dallas. You can buy clothing. You can buy shampoo. You can buy plasma TVs, sport utility vehicles. It's so new. The floor is so polished, you can almost see your reflection in it.
We'd come to meet a Salafist. The word Salaf refers to the earliest Muslims, and Salafis today insist on a strict and puritanical view of Islam. Throughout our journey across Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, people talked of Salafi agitation against alcohol, women's rights or provocative art. But we were meeting the founder of a distinctive Salafist faction. Mohammed Tolba met us not in a mosque, but in this mall, in an upscale coffee shops.
And what are you drinking, if I may ask?
MOHAMMED TOLBA: It's iced tea.
INSKEEP: Oh, iced tea. OK.
INSKEEP: Strawberry iced tea.
TOLBA: It's a national Salafi drink.
INSKEEP: He's 33 years old, an employee of an IT firm, and one of several friends who sport beards. People in his movement are known as Costa Coffee Salafists, because they meet in upscale coffee shops, the Egyptian equivalent of Starbucks.
TOLBA: We are a movement that happened coincidentally, by chance.
INSKEEP: What do you mean?
TOLBA: It was a joke, and then it turned to be something real, very real.
INSKEEP: Somebody made a crack about latte drinkers with beards, and Tolba decided to publicize the group on Facebook. Tolba, who checked his iPad several times during our talk, says he disagrees with people who are prejudiced against his beard. He also disagrees with Salafists who do not like his Western-style jeans. They think traditional men's dress is a religious injunction. He thinks it's just a cultural preference. Asked how he defines a Salafist, Tolba answers...
TOLBA: Not bin Laden.
INSKEEP: Not Osama bin Laden.
TOLBA: Not Osama bin Laden.
TOLBA: And it's not George Bush. OK. A Salafi are those who, like, in Christianity, are the orthodox.
INSKEEP: He's Orthodox, he says, and believes in dialogue. Since we asked to meet some members of his movement, he brought two along. One was a young woman who carefully moved her face covering, or niqab, while sipping her mocha. The other was actually a Christian. Tolba, the founder, insists he does not reject the modern world.
I just have one other question: We're in this gigantic shopping mall. There's a Ruby Tuesday over there. I don't know if they have alcohol on the menu there, but in America, you can go to a Ruby Tuesday, you can order a beer. Here's a Noodle House. You can buy a car. There's football, or what Americans call soccer, on TV, guys running around in shorts. There's an incredible variety of things going on here. There's music playing. If you were in control in Egypt, would you change any of this?
TOLBA: I have to accept that this is there. This is our community. This is our culture. You cannot change it. It takes like tens of years. I might not accept everything there, but I cannot change it culturally, you know.
INSKEEP: Listening carefully to Mohammed Tolba, you sense that he would like to change people over time, but he's willing to talk about it. That's a meaningful distinction, because we found during our recent journey, that not everybody is willing to talk.
In Tunisia, Salafist demonstrations have led increasingly to violence. In Libya, we saw protesters with machine guns, holding up signs declaring democracy incompatible with Islam. You can say the Arab world faces a divide between liberals and conservatives. A more important divide is between people who listen to others and people who insist that others must do as they say.
We're glad you joined us for our journey along the Revolutionary Road: Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. Our producer was Nishant Dahiya, and you can find the work of our photographer John Poole at npr.org. We'll have more dispatches in days to come.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.