Islamism Espresso: Cairo's First Halal Cafe Is Trendy And Segregated

In Egypt's capital, "D.capuccino" is the latest sign of piety since Mubarak fell. In separate sections for men, women and families, it serves up Italian coffee and "pure, Islamic values."

Being hip and halal is that easy! Cairo's D.cappucino cafe
Being hip and halal is that easy! Cairo's D.cappucino cafe
Delphine Minoui

CAIRO – From the outside, the “D.cappuccino” looks like a cool hangout for the hip kids of Cairo. But once inside, the bearded waiter ushers any female customers into the premises, and gently explains that they must sit in the “women only” part of the café, located in the back. The men enjoy the street side on the left, while the “families” – meaning, married couples - have the right section for themselves.

Our café wants to reflect society’s good moral values. We want our customers to feel at ease, this way, women won’t be harassed and the families can bring their kids without exposing them to indecent scenes such as a couple holding hands,” says Mohammad Sayed.

Wearing the typical Salafist long black beard and thin iron glasses, this 28-year-old engineer is the cofounder of this halal café, which has been open for six months. The first such pious dining establishment to open in central Cairo since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak.

Since the Raïs was removed, the political landscape of this mainly Muslim country of 80 million is conducive to such endeavors. Censored and oppressed by the former regime, the Islamists, who used to live in the shadow, are in firm control in this post-revolution context.

Their formerly banned political parties are now in the spotlight. Elected in June, President Mohammed Morsi belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood. The new constitution, approved by referendum, is guided by Islamic law. The liberal opposition is disorganized, clearing the way for the religious factions to take over during the next legislative elections.

Sayed doesn’t have a lot to say about politics, per se. On the coffee place’s Facebook page, the D.cappuccino is described as a “new experience,” relying on “pure, Islamic values.”

While he won’t shake a woman’s hand, the young owner refuses any assimilation with the Salafists – the fierce defenders of a radical Islam – and says he feels more like a “conservative Muslim.”

Here, you won’t be find any beer or hookah – the popular water pipe long smoked in the old cafés of downtown Cairo. No cigarettes allowed either. This new kind of establishment – open from 7:30 a.m. to 2:00 a.m. – offers pizzas, Paninis, “sunshine” cocktails, a fruity “Hawaii” drink or a “Cherry cola” soda pop. The menu is as pleasant as the relaxing setting of more than 3,000 square feet establishment.

A safe escape for women

Still, everywhere are little hints promoting a pure Wahhabi incarnation of Islam, including no human representations on the walls, as forbidden by the ultra-religious. As a result, they display pictures of cardboard figures and the televisions show animated programs as well as Islam-friendly hits from famous pop star Sami Youssef as background music.

“We shut it down at prayer time,” adds Sayed. His coworker Ahmad Mahmud nods in approval: “It’s just so that we can hear the Mosque’s call better.”

Behind them, a young couple is taking its place in the “family” section. Hair slicked back and hairy chin, the man orders an espresso while his partner, in her blue hijab, goes for the mango juice. They both have their eyes set on the flat screen TV broadcasting Ratatouille, the young hero from the eponymous movie based on the life a rat who becomes a chef.

No proof of family status was asked when they came in. “We’re not here to play the morality police, checking IDs and marriage certificates. Sometimes, we even make a few exceptions to the rules: for example, when a group of interns in medical school asked for permission to study here with their colleagues,” confessed Sayed, obviously concerned with his café’s image.

On the other hand, the all-male waiters have to stay alert. “If some clients misbehave, we discreetly go and tell them,” adds the young owner.

The concept of gender segregation in the public space isn’t entirely new in Egypt, and is already very common in Saudi Arabia. The subway for instance has had a “woman only” wagon for a long time, and the access to a specific beach in north Alexandria is restricted to the fairer sex.

The female customers seem to be okay with it. On that day, Amina, a longhaired young mother with a black blouse is meeting her best friends in the “women’s” section, discreetly hidden from the masculine eye by a large glass. Amina has brought her toddler, who is passed around and covered in gifts. “We feel more comfortable being just us women,” she says.

To the skeptics who only see the D.cappuccino as a bitter appetizer foreshadowing a potentially more puritan Egypt, Amina responds that she prefers to see the problem from a social rather than religious angle: “Our country is rooted in a patriarchal culture where men have a distorted vision of women. You just walk down the street and people start whistling at you, and even make indecent propositions and dirty jokes. As long as this remains an issue, I’m all for these cafés.”

At the back of the “women only” area, Heydi and Rana, two students in computer science, are quietly typing on their keyboards. One wears a light blue veil and the other a small white bonnet covering long brown hair. It’s their first time here. “We were looking for a nice place to work. It’s quiet in here and the setting is nice,” noted Rana. “However, if we want to meet up with our friends, we’ll go to Cilantro’s or the Costa café like everyone else our age. The D.cappuccino will never replace the other cafés!”

Paradoxically, perhaps, the harshest criticism is coming from the Islamists themselves, who espouse a lifestyle modeled on the prophet’s in his own time. “Islam and cafés are incompatible. Have you ever heard of cafés during the early years of Islam?” wonders Hany Ismaïl Mohamad, a member of the Al-Nour radical movement.

The relative tolerance from the D.cappuccino owners, willing to let un-veiled women inside is also a constant question. And in this place, the waiters may enter the woman section. "But only to take orders,” adds Sayed.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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