Aziz B'illah street is a bastion for ultraconservative Muslims known as Salafists, nestled in the middle-class neighborhood of Zaitoun, which also includes many Christians. A renowned mosque sits in the middle, where the top preachers influenced by Saudi-style ideology lecture and an attached clinic serves the local community. (Leila Fadel/The Washington POst)

After Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was ousted last year, ultraconservative Muslims known as Salafists emerged from the shadows and quickly became a surprising political force. No longer afraid of being detained and tortured for their strict interpretation of Islam, more pious men grew out their beards and more women felt comfortable covering their faces with the black veils favored by Salafists, even at government jobs.

In the winter, Salafists won about 25 percent of the seats in Egypt’s new parliament. But though they are far more visible now than they were under Mubarak’s secular but autocratic rule, Salafists are once again feeling marginalized as they struggle to translate their new strength into a unified political voice just a few weeks before Egyptians elect a new president.

Their preferred candidate, ultraconservative preacher Hazem Abu Ismail, was disqualified this month over the issue of his late mother’s nationality, leaving the voting bloc up for grabs and in disarray.

On Saturday, the largest Salafist political party, Nour, and its founding organization, Dawa Salafiya, backed the progressive Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh. The move could reunify the vote behind an unlikely figure. The progressive Islamist has a much looser interpretation of Islamic law compared with the Salafists. But he is not beholden to the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s most powerful Islamist group, and could be a key ally, analysts said.

“The decision could encourage other Salafi groups to back Aboul Fotouh and create a future alliance with him. We have to see,” said Khalil al-Anani, an expert on Islamist movements at Britain-based Durham University. He added that if other Salafist groups follow, it could consolidate the ultraconservative political movement.

Moderates, minorities worry

But Salafists still face significant challenges. The Nour party appears to be unraveling, with a number of members resigning in recent weeks, some even giving up on politics to return to preaching.

At the same time, many Salafists have said that they are boycotting the vote over Abu Ismail’s disqualification. The Jurisprudence Commission for Rights and Reforms, a panel of top, mostly Salafist scholars and clerics, backed the Brotherhood candidate, Mohammed Morsi, last week, making it unclear whether the Nour party’s decision would seal the rank-and-file Salafist vote for Aboul Fotouh.

“Salafists are now one of the new power centers in Egypt, and their decision will shape Egypt’s polity for years to come,” Anani said.

The puritanical Muslims’ potentially decisive role has made more moderate Egyptian Muslims and the minority Coptic Christians uneasy. Salafist leaders have advocated for expanding the application of Islamic law to sectors such as banking, which would, for instance, outlaw charging interest on loans.

Some have suggested that head scarves for women ought to be mandatory and that workplaces should be segregated.

In parliament, Salafist lawmakers were ridiculed for suggesting that English be banned from schools. Those calls have generated fear among liberal Egyptians, who worry that the country could become as conservative as Saudi Arabia, where women are not allowed to drive, and boosted support in some quarters for two other presidential candidates: former foreign minister Amr Moussa and former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq.

Support for Aboul Fotouh

That backlash has prompted some Salafists to conclude that a concerted effort is afoot to marginalize them again. Many are moving toward Aboul Fotouh, who they see as a person who could unify Egyptians across the political spectrum, from religious conservatives to liberals and leftists.

“We need all the Islamist votes to mobilize behind one Islamist candidate to block the path for attempts to reproduce the old regime with different faces,” said Nizar Ghorab, an Aboul Fotouh supporter who recently resigned from the Nour party because of disagreements with it and its founding organization. “The strongest political movement right now is the Islamist movement. Antagonizing and marginalizing us will have no effect.”

Many Salafists might be closer to the Brotherhood ideologically, analysts said, but they see Aboul Fotouh as a more independent and revolutionary candidate who is more likely than a Brotherhood statesman to promote their interests.

“The narrative is that the Brotherhood does what is in the organization’s best interest, even if it means betraying allies,” said Shadi Hamid, an Egypt expert at the Brookings Doha Center.

A sense of persecution

Mossaad Farghali, 35, owns a religious bookshop on Aziz B’illah street in northeast Cairo, a hub for Salafist book and clothing stores. But he went to work at a pharmaceutical company during the previous administration and returned to the bookshop only after Mubarak’s ouster. The state security forces who had been on every corner were gone, and the accusations that the mosque he attended was a hub for terrorism had stopped.

But Farghali said Abu Ismail’s disqualification this month, after his calls for a broader role for Islamic law in Egypt and intense criticism of the military rulers, made him feel that his community was again under attack. He added that people who focus on veils rather than the piety and justice that could come from the same Islamic laws are misguided.

The bookstore owner said he is now leaning toward Aboul Fotouh in the May 23-24 presidential vote because he is an Islamist and seems honest, despite being more liberal than Farghali is.

A candidate for ‘everyone’

But just down the road, other Salafist shop owners vowed to boycott the vote.

“After what happened to Sheik Hazem [Abu Ismail], I’ve decided not to participate,” said Waleed Askan, 37. “We were tricked. There is no one that represents true Islamic law now, and it’s clear that the outcome has already been decided.”

In a nearby neighborhood, Hesham Abdul Azim and his wife, Marwa Mustapha, have spent months discussing the right choice for the future of their family and their country.

Abdul Azim grew up in a political home. His parents are Marxists. But he found Salafism in 2002 through a local preacher, as many others searching for a new avenue to social justice have in the past 20 years.

At first, Mustapha supported Abu Ismail as a beloved preacher closest to her revolutionary and religious belief system. But as she watched the increasing polarization of the nation that ensued when Islamists dominated the parliament and liberals reacted viscerally, she said, she realized she wanted someone closer to the middle.

“Liberal extremists started to call for the military to work against the Islamists, just because it’s the majority,” she said.

Abdul Azim wants an Islamist leader but not a Salafist president, who may alienate less conservative Egyptians.

“The president must be convinced by the revolution’s goals, and he must be convinced by Islam but shouldn’t be part of any tendency, not Salafist, not Brotherhood, so that he doesn’t belong to anyone, he belongs to everyone,” Abdul Azim said.

On Sunday, Abdul Azim said he was hopeful that the Nour party’s decision would reunite the Salafist vote.

Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.