CAIRO — Baheyya Ali, 65, nudged her way through a crowd that had gathered one recent evening to watch men with bushy beards heave cooking-gas canisters off a truck in a densely packed, trash-strewn Cairo neighborhood.
Her eyes widened when she learned that the men, Islamists from Egypt's conservative Salafi movement, were selling the cans for less than a dollar each, a deep discount from the usual price. She cursed the middlemen at state distribution centers who jack up the prices fivefold, and complained that the inflated price of cooking gas and other goods means she can't afford her medicines.
"Where's the revolution?" Ali muttered. "Where's the youth revolution?"
"Here it is," one of the Salafis told her gently, gesturing to the truckload of cheap fuel. She joined her neighbors in praising the men for easing their burden.
That scene from the hardscrabble Talbiya district is playing out in dozens, probably hundreds, of other teeming Egyptian neighborhoods where conservative Islamists are in charge of "popular committees," the ad hoc groups that have formed to guard citizens' interests in the bumpy transition since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak.
Islamist leaders say the work is simply charity, a formalization of their longstanding service projects.
But moderate and liberal political rivals consider the Salfis' charity to be part of a stealthy campaign for big Islamist wins in parliamentary elections later this year, and the Islamists themselves acknowledge inspiration from the electoral successes of other regional Islamist factions with charity wings: Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and the Justice and Development Party in Turkey, for example.
"We live among the people," boasted Ashraf Naguib, a database programmer who's part of the Talbiya committee. "The liberals and secularists just talk on TV and in the media, in their air-conditioning. They don't feel the people," he added, echoing the Islamist complaint that their "Westernized," moderate political opponents spend more time on Facebook than in the streets.
An Islamist-dominated Egyptian government is a nightmare scenario for the U.S., which plied Mubarak with billions of dollars to keep regional stability and uphold the peace treaty with Israel.
Egyptian liberals, moderates and Coptic Christians are likewise terrified that Islamist parties would use elected office to reverse the revolution's efforts to improve human rights, the status of women, and provide freedom of religion and expression.
Salafis already have formed two political parties, at least one of which has been recognized by the government. Other parties are still in the development phase, though it is unlikely that the Salafis, who are a minority among Egypt's 80 million population, could win an election on their own. More likely, their support could propel candidates from the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood.
With about a dozen satellite-TV channels at their service, Salafis also spread their austere message to millions of viewers across the Arab world.
The ascension of a group that until recently shunned politics and lived under enormous security pressure is remarkable, though not always smooth.
Salafis' tentative alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood, banned before Mubarak fell, is under scrutiny as accusations of bigotry, violence and intimidation mount against them. News reports have linked Salafis to the brutal beatings of Coptic Christians, vandalism of Sufi and Christian places of worship, the compulsion of women to wear veils, and other oppressive behavior.
Salafis deny the accusations, noting that few arrests or convictions have come from such incidents. They say their grassroots supporters are familiar with their work and can distinguish between respected Islamists and rogue extremists.
"If people are afraid of us, it comes down to a war of ideology and thought," said Moattaz Reda, 25, one of the Salafi volunteers. "Lay down all the ideologies and see which best suits the community, through elections. We won't impose our beliefs on anyone."
The Salafis in Talbiya said their charity work predates the revolution and wasn't as visible before only because of the Mubarak-era crackdown on Islamist organizations. Most of the dozen or so volunteers said they'd been imprisoned and tortured; authorities even shut down their soccer nights for neighborhood children.
That's no longer the case. The military-led caretaker government, overextended in its dual security-political role, now appears more than happy to turn over some local services to the more efficient Islamists. In a once-unthinkable partnership, the government now directly empowers the Salafis to distribute state-subsidized goods without profiteering intermediaries, a quick fix to widespread public complaints of spiraling prices and the old regime's lingering corruption.
Members of the Talbiya popular committee said they'd persuaded the government to trust them with the distribution of cooking gas and bread as a pilot project. In one week this month, they distributed 10,000 loaves a day, and 1,000 gas canisters by the weekend. The military council that rules Egypt couldn't be reached for comment.
"What you're seeing now is a service we do for God," said Mohamed Abdelfattah, 30, head of the Talbiya committee. "We've been fiercely attacked in recent days, so this is to show we're not ear-cutters or shrine-destroyers. This is the real face of the Salafi movement."
Recent surveys of Egyptians conducted by Gallup and the Pew Research Center have found that Egyptians hold highly favorable views of Islamists, but express similar approval for other actors such as the relatively secular April 6 Movement and familiar statesmen Amr Moussa, the former head of the Arab League, Mohamed ElBaradei, who once led the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency, and Ayman Nour, who was thrown in jail after he ran for president against Mubarak.
A vast majority of Egyptians oppose a theocratic government, according to the survey results. Most respondents said their priorities were economic reforms and the creation of jobs.
"Ordinary people vote for whoever provides a service, whether it's the Salafis or the Muslim Brotherhood," said Essam Shawky, a taxi driver who watched the Talbiya scene unfold from his cab parked nearby. He was clean-shaven and played Arabic pop music on his car radio.
When asked about the street-level visibility of the liberal opposition parties, Shawky shook his head: "They don't exist."
Still, he couldn't say for sure that he'd vote for the Islamists.
"I'm not worried now, but I'm afraid they could change their ideology when they come to power. We're afraid they're going to drag us backward," Shawky said. "In Saudi Arabia, the debate today is whether women should drive cars. We don't want to be like that."
(McClatchy special correspondent Mohannad Sabry contributed.)
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McClatchy Newspapers 2011