When the D. Cappucino café opened its doors last May it attracted little attention outside of Cairo’s upscale Nasser City neighborhood.
But a political crisis that has polarized Egypt and set liberals and Islamists at loggerheads has suddenly focused nationwide attention on the café, which caters to conservative values.
The café is identical in almost every way to the fashionable western style espresso bars that have become increasingly popular in Egypt over the last decade.
But there are key differences – customers are encouraged to conform to gender segregation, with separate sections for families, single men and single women.
Customers in search of a traditional waterpipe, or sheesha, will be disappointed. There’s no smoking of any kind allowed.
And while most cafes in Egypt sport flatscreen TVs that blare the latest Arab music videos, there is no music in D. Cappucino. Just the hum of conversation and the occasional clatter of typing.
But while the café’s conformity to conservative Islamic values is a respite for some, it has raised alarm bells for others.
A recent article in the liberal ‘Al-Watan’ newspaper published an article about the café, citing it as just more example of an attempt by Egypt’s Islamist led government and their supporters to change the traditionally permissive Egyptian identity. Step by step, liberals fear, Islamists are using their growing weight to implement their vision for Egyptian society.
The owners of D. Cappucino have now become unwilling foils in the highly charged political and cultural tug-of-war that has raged in Egypt ever since the Muslim Brotherhood began to dominate the country’s political transition, first by winning parliamentary elections and then the presidency.
But customer Mohamed Islam says that he simply feels more at home in the cafe’s conservative setting, which is similar in style to cafés and restaurants in Arab Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia, where Islam used to live.
“We were not able to go to places where single men and women sit together, because people used to look at us with disdain. Some people would ask what brought us to such a place, since the majority of the people who go to such coffee shops say that people with beards and veiled woman are not supposed to chat together in such places or to socialise amongst others,”he said.
The café’s owners deny claims that they are connected in any way to the Muslim Brotherhood, and say that the gender segregation they offer is no more foreign to Egypt than separate subway train cars for women, which is offered on Cairo’s metro service.
Jihad Amin, a journalist, says that labelling D. Cappucino as an ‘Islamist’ café is unfair, and that those scrutinising it are showing a lack of tolerance.
“I don’t see it as an ‘Islamic café’, but I can say that it is a café for families. I like this idea, that just as there are coffee shops for foreigners, and coffee shops where singles can sit together, there are also some people who don’t like either, so those people have the right to find a suitable place for them to go out. It is so simple – people are living together in one community so there is no reason to accept a certain lifestyle and to reject the other, “she said.
While the café has been a draw for conservative Muslims and women who simply want to avoid being hassled or gawked at, the quiet atmosphere has also attracted businessmen wanting to hold lunchtime meetings without having their conversations drowned out by the latest music video.
Whatever the intentions of D. Cappucino’s owners, the café was certain to make opponents of the country’s ascendant Islamist parties nervous.
The domination of Egypt’s nascent political scene by Islamist parties after the fall of Hosni Mubarak nearly two years ago has unsettled liberals and many religious Egyptians who oppose the imposition of moral and social strictures.
The fight over Egypt’s new Islamist-backed constitution has only sharpened the divide, and street battles between liberal protesters and supporters of the Muslim brotherhood raised the spectre of Egypt’s political divide leading to uncontrollable civil strife.
But that debate is far from the mind of customers like Ahmed Zein.
“We are looking for a certain environment, which is calm, where there is separation, no smoking of cigarettes or waterpipes, and at the same time, we are looking for quality of the services as well. In D. Cappuccino Café they provide us with all of these things, and they provide me with extra privacy and a high quality product, whether food or drink. I don’t see any need to classify it – the description of ‘Café for Islamists’ is untrue, “he said.
So while Egypt’s culture wars continue with no end in sight, customers at the D. Cappucino café are just hoping to be left on the sidelines.