ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — At 2 a.m. on a tense night just before Egypt's president Hosni Mubarak was toppled, Yehia el Sherif and other members of his ad-hoc neighborhood watch group noticed a car carrying two men with long beards approach their checkpoint in the port city of Alexandria.
The watchmen didn't order the car to stop — the men inside turned off the engine, offered a vehicle search and presented their ID cards without prompting, Sherif, a 21-year-old college student, recalled. After the search, the bearded men passed out pamphlets espousing the rigid ideology of the Salafis, an ultraconservative branch of Islam whose literalist interpretations are anathema to Muslim moderates and liberals.
The car sped off into the night, leaving Sherif and his neighbors slack-jawed as they realized the Salafis had engineered the episode as a chance to proselytize — they were driving the dark and menacing streets to spread the message that Islam was the only way out of Egypt's political crisis.
"They knew they'd be stopped and searched and that would allow them to give out the pamphlets, which were all about strict and stern Sharia law," Sherif said. "That's when we thought, 'Yeah, maybe we should be concerned.'"
Now the possibility that Salafis may enter Egypt's mainstream politics is raising concern that their beliefs could one day become a dominating force in life here — something that U.S. diplomats have been concerned about for at least two years.
"Increasingly, Egyptian political elites are uneasy about the rising popular resonance of Salafis, concerned that, although the Egyptian groups do not currently advocate violence, their extreme interpretation of Islam creates an environment where susceptibility to radicalism and jihadi ideas is heightened," a U.S. diplomat wrote in a cable to the State Department that's among the cache obtained by the WikiLeaks website.
Until the movement that toppled Mubarak, Salafis assiduously avoided involvement in the world of secular politics. But as the anti-Mubarak demonstrations unfolded, young Salafis, with their bushy beards and full facial veils, became conspicuous among other activists in Cairo's Tahrir Square, despite the reluctance of their clerics to support the protests.
Then last month, a Salafi umbrella group in Alexandria, a stronghold of Islamists from all ideologies, sent shockwaves throughout Egypt with the announcement that Salafis would enter the political arena — an abrupt reversal of the faction's longtime stance of boycotting elections to focus on religious outreach.
Some critics argue that the Salafis are too intolerant and politically immature to pose much of a threat at the polls, but other Egyptian activists fear that the Salafis are aligning themselves with the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood, and that that alliance will steamroll the disorganized youth groups and liberals in fall parliamentary elections, resulting in an Islamist victory.
That's the U.S. government's nightmare scenario: an Islamist-dominated government ruling the Arab world's most populous nation, one that is a neighbor and peace partner to Israel and the keeper of the strategically vital Suez Canal.
It's one that alarms pro-democracy activists in Cairo, too.
They point to the results of the recent referendum on revising the constitution of what can happen in an "Islamists vs. Everyone Else" political climate.
The Salafis campaigned in tandem with the Muslim Brotherhood in poor neighborhoods with religious populations, pitching a "yes" vote for hastily drafted constitutional amendments that the pro-democracy movement opposed.
The amendments passed with 77 percent of the vote — a victory that one popular Salafi sheikh controversially gloated about as a "conquest of the ballot boxes."
The YouTube video of Sheikh Mohamed Hussein Yaqoub's remarks went viral, setting off online battles between the cleric's Salafi supporters and Egyptian moderates who took the video as proof that Islamists were trying to take over Egypt.
One of Yaqoub's students, Sheikh Ali Nasr, said a Saudi-style theocracy isn't the goal. He challenged critics to listen to Salafi preachers, promising they'd hear nothing about violence or forcing their austere brand of Islam on other Egyptians.
"We shouldn't get ahead of ourselves and say that we want a religious state, but I do call for a president that respects religious freedom and, more importantly, I want the president to respect and protect our resources and confront corruption," Nasr said.
"Islam is in the souls of the people and will be here before and after elections, so we're not looking for a religious state as much as a just and fair state."
There've been more signs in recent days that the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood have put aside their longtime rivalry. In the past, the Brotherhood scorned the Salafis' extremist views, while the Salafis accused the Brotherhood of bending strict tenets to broaden the group's popular appeal.
In the past week, however, Salafi clerics have begun urging their followers to vote for the Brotherhood, conceding that their rivals are light-years ahead of them in political organizing, coalition-building and media outreach.
Analysts say the Salafis realize they're in over their heads as politicians, so their best bet is to send their legions to the Brotherhood so as not to split the Islamist vote.
Whether that's good for the Brotherhood, which portrays itself as moderate and non-violent in hopes of winning non-Islamists to their cause, is still to be seen. The Salafis have a reputation as joyless religious blowhards, an image that makes them hardly appealing to millions of Egyptians.
Already, stories of Salafi intolerance are spreading. They're accused of torching a liquor store in the south, and of destroying a shrine of a rival minority near Alexandria.
Salafis deny official knowledge of such attacks and say such crimes are presented — typically with scant evidence or suspects — to feed fears of Salafi extremism.
"We deliver our message through peaceful words of advice and guidance and not through violent actions," said Abdullah Shakir, the head of Ansar al Sunna, a Salafi-linked Islamic charity that operates 10 hospitals and has 240 offices across the country. "We warn people against extremism and deliver this message through many means, including lectures, sermons and our monthly magazine."
The Brotherhood, meanwhile, is taking steps to soften the Salafis' image, while at the same time maintaining a certain distance.
This week, the Brotherhood reported on its website that it would broker a reconciliation summit between the Salafis and the rival Sufi minority "to avoid problems in Egypt that may destroy everything and everybody in the event of an armed conflict."
After the attack on the Sufi shrine, the Brotherhood posted a condemnation on its English-language website. But the same message didn't appear on the Arabic version, said Rasha Mahmoud, a Salafi business owner in Cairo who noticed the discrepancy as she surfed the web last week.
"Why make the statement in English? It's like they were trying to send a message to the West, but didn't dare say it in their country because they'd lose the Salafis," Mahmoud said. "And at the same time, they're coordinating with the Salafis."
Salafis make up only a fraction of Egypt's population of 80 million, but they have access to millions of TV viewers every day through as many as a dozen satellite TV channels, including one in English. A Salafi-affiliated magazine, al Tawhid, has a circulation of 50,000.
Their ability to mobilize their followers — which makes them attractive to would-be political allies — was on display at a Cairo convention earlier this month.
The event, organized on Facebook, drew up to 70,000 supporters who arrived by the busload from far-flung towns. The buses, in accordance with Salafi custom, were segregated by sex.
The convention's headliner clerics from Alexandria reiterated the stance against violence, called for the protection of Coptic Christians and other minorities, and urged rival political factions to reject stereotypes that portray Salafis as violent and backward.
Still, the speeches promoting tolerance were peppered with vitriol against "liberals, communists and socialists," who were described as enemies of Islam. And some clerics again referred to the referendum as a victory for Islamists, even though many Egyptians say they voted for the amendments out of a desire for stability and a quick end to military rule.
"What happened during the constitutional referendum proves that this is an Islamic state," Sheikh Said Abdel Azim, a prominent preacher, told the crowds. With only 41 percent turnout achieving this result, he said, "you can imagine how it would be if the whole community came out to vote."
(McClatchy special correspondents Mohannad Sabry and Arwa Ibrahim contributed to this story from Cairo.)
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