Despite disagreements with its younger members, the Muslim Brotherhood seems confident that it will emerge victorious in September’s parliamentary elections. In February it said it would win no more than 20 percent of the seats; it is now—officially—aiming for 50 percent. Essam el-Erian recently told me, “But of course we want a majority or the largest percent we can get.” Through a coalition agreement with other Islamist groups, Lacroix said, this “seems increasingly likely.” With its outreach programs that offer free and subsidized food and services in the poorer neighborhoods, the Brotherhood’s popularity will likely only grow—in particular as inflation rises and prices go up. “They know they are in the strongest position,” Lacroix said. It is not unusual for those who are not keen on an Islamic state modeled on Saudi or Iran to point out that, with 40 percent of the population living beneath the poverty line, the Brotherhood’s previous slogan, “Islam is the answer,” has strong appeal.
At the end of May, in a public library in Imbaba, not far from the Virgin Mary Church, a group of Salafis—who call themselves “Salafyo Costa” after Costa Coffee, which they like to drink—held an open meeting, intended “to begin a dialogue with liberals and help cast aside this idea of us as devils,” as Mohamed Tolba, one of the group’s organizers, told me. He asked the gathered group to mix: “Let’s sit together,” he said, “Salafis next to non-Salafis, come on.” Mohamed, who had recently returned to Egypt after years in Sudan because “of persecution against bearded men that look like me,” said that he wanted to create dialogue and unity, “just like in Tahrir.” Mohamed is funny, lighthearted, and quick to poke fun at the Salafi stereotype. “I know you are scared of us,” he said, addressing the row of women in jeans and exposed hair that had come to listen in. “Tell us your fears, let us answer to them. We know you have Salaphobia, but we won’t bite.”
A lively debate went on for five hours, ending with a recurring question to Mohamed and his colleagues: Are you representative of most of the Salafis out there? The answer was “no,” but since the meeting—which was reported in the local press—Mohamed and his colleagues (their group has a Facebook page with almost five thousand members) have, he says, been receiving phone calls from ultraconservative party leaders and more radical sheikhs. “I don’t want to mention names,” he told me yesterday, “but some sheikhs who said we were crazy, even sinners, now want to work with us. So do the emerging political parties. I’ve received so many requests for collaboration—they see our method is a more effective one.”