The fresh scrawls are the work of Islamists who are emerging from the fringes of Egyptian society with zeal and swagger. Their graffiti and billboards calling for a more conservative Egypt have become pervasive here in recent months, part of a rapidly growing debate about what should emerge from a revolution that toppled an autocratic leader and unleashed long-subdued social and political forces.
“There is going to be a battle between two visions for Egypt,” said Abdel Moneim El-Shahat, a leader in Egypt’s fundamentalist Salafist movement, whose members spent long years in jail under President Hosni Mubarak.
With parliamentary elections scheduled for this fall, the Salafists are poised to emerge as a powerful political force in the contest, which could become an unofficial referendum on how piously the Arab world’s largest nation should be governed in the post-revolutionary era.
Salafists are loosely organized around the ideal that Islam ought to be restored to what they consider the pure, fundamental way the prophet Muhammad and his immediate descendants practiced it.
In Egypt, Salafist men shun alcohol and grow long beards. They insist that female relatives refrain from working outside the household and cover their faces with the garment known as the niqab. Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, they have not actively participated in Egyptian politics and have not opened their political ranks to minorities, such as Coptic Christians.
Although less politically experienced than the better-known Brotherhood, Egypt’s Salafists could significantly alter the political landscape of a country that was run by a secular autocrat for three decades. Salafist leaders are forming political parties, tapping into the region’s burgeoning blogosphere and reintroducing themselves in communities where they had long been regarded as pariahs.
Abdallah al-Ashaal, a former Egyptian diplomat who is running for president as a liberal, said the Salafists will be able to rally a large base of supporters at the polls.
“They vote according to orders, not to convictions,” he said.
No one — not even budding Salafist politicians — is predicting a windfall on election day for the movement, which includes leaders who profess admiration for slain al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. But Shahat and other influential Salafists say they intend to play a key role in the drafting of a new constitution to ensure it reflects a strict interpretation of Islamic law.
Salafist leaders have not spelled out a clear political platform or said how far they think the state should go in ensuring that Islamic law is the anchor of morality, justice and governance in the new Egypt.