Cairo, Dec 7: With little political experience but a huge religious following, Egypt's ultraconservative Salafi movement has pulled off the biggest surprise yet of the country's first-round parliamentary elections by taking a quarter of the vote.
The Salafis, who plan to use their newfound clout to push for Islamization of Egypt, are flush with cash and are using their control of satellite TV stations and mosques across the country to sell themselves not only as an alternative to the corrupt old regime, but as a purer alternative to other Islamist parties.
Their newfound power has raised concerns at home and abroad that they'll drag Egypt in a more fundamentalist direction that could limit personal freedom, harm tourism and alter foreign policy.
"Their impact is huge and dominating," said Tharwat al-Kharabawi, an Egyptian expert on Islamist movements.
"For the poor who live in hardship, Salafis give them hope without necessarily providing alternative or practical solutions."
The Salafi Al-Nour party won nearly 25 percent of seats contested in the first elections since the February ouster of Hosni Mubarak in an uprising, a vote declared the freest and fairest in the country's modern history.
They came in second only to the more moderate Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, the best known and organized party, which won 37 percent.
About a third of Egyptians voted in the first stage, but the results are not expected to change drastically in the next two rounds that will cover the rest of the country.
The Salafis surprise electoral success reflected years of grass-roots organizing throughout the country, which gave them a ready-made network of support when they entered politics.
The movement, founded in Egypt in the 1920s, remained apolitical throughout most of its history, with preachers focusing on the importance of strict religious observance and spurning democracy for prioritizing man's law over God's.
They also offered social and medical services to the poor, winning them backers even among those who don't follow their strict ideology.
With the collapse of Mubarak's regime, the Salafis jumped into politics, seeing it as the best way to make Islamic law, or Shariah, the basis of the Egyptian state.
Depicting themselves as "guardians of Shariah," they formed several political parties with names such as Virtue, Authenticity and Light.
Leading clerics with their trademark long, bushy beards and Saudi-style robes became regular guests on TV talk shows, spreading their views.
Many also issued religious edicts, or fatwas, attacking secularists, saying women and Christians can't run for president and calling for a legal system that will punish those who break Islamic law.
Their leaders still say Islam must restrict democracy.
"The mechanism of democracy suits me, like elections and ballot boxes to choose my representative," said Yousseri Hamed, spokesman for the strongest Salafi party, Al-Nour. "The idea that the people make their own laws and decide what is prohibited and what is permitted, we reject that."
Their single-minded dedication to applying Islamic law sets them apart from Egypt's strongest Islamist force, the Muslim Brotherhood, which shares many of the Salafi fundamentalist beliefs but also has a history of political pragmatism to achieve its ends.
Even though the group was legally banned, many of its members served in parliament under Mubarak as independents.
Leaders of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party say their current priorities include rebuilding state institutions and boosting the economy, not banning alcohol or regulating women's dress.
The Salafis' perceived "purity" also won them some voters, who said they saw the Brotherhood as less authentically "Islamic."
"They are newcomers. They haven't dirtied their names with politics, and they are providing something that is perceived to be new and clean," said Khaled Fahmy, a historian who studies Islamist movements.
Salafis follow the Wahabi school of thought, which predominates in Saudi Arabia.
They promote a strict interpretation of Islamic law which mandates segregation of the sexes, bans banks from charging interest and punishes theft by cutting off thieves' hands.
At a Salafi rally in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria recently, party loyalist covered mermaid statues on a public fountain with cloth, saying their dress violated Islamic codes of modesty.
Many worry they'll try to ban women from driving and working and move to censor TV programming.
The movement has spread in Egypt though a nationwide network of preachers, religious organizations and a growing number of satellite TV stations with names like Wisdom and Glory, which allowed the Salafi message to reach a larger audience in a country of 85 million where one-third of the population is illiterate.
Many accuse the Salafis of accepting foreign funding, particularly from Gulf countries, meant to spread conservative Islam.
This month, an Egyptian government report found that a leading Salafi association, Al-Sunnah al-Mohammadiya, received almost $50 million this year from associations in Qatar and Kuwait.
According to the state-run daily Akhbar al-Youm, only one-tenth of the money was for aid to the poor. The rest was for "development projects."
As the election approached, the leading Salafi Al-Nour party opened dozens of campaign offices across the country and spent lavishly on posters and rallies, which often equated a vote for the party with a vote for Islam.
Many Salafi voters took their electoral cues directly from their preachers, whom they were already used to consulting on important life issues.
"The preacher would be a spiritual guide, political adviser, family councilor. He's everything for his followers," said Samuel Tadros, who studies Egypt for the Washington-based Hudson Institute think tank.
When the movement decided to enter politics, these preachers easily converted this loyal following into political support, he said. They offered a simple message that many voters found easier to understand than the platforms of liberal parties.
"The Islamists were offering something and the others were offering nothing, so the Egyptians made the logical choice and chose among what was offered to them," he said.
Many Salafi party election posters carried pictures of leading preachers next to their candidates.
Salafis' new role worries many inside Egypt, concerned the push for Islamist reforms will stifle tourism, a mainstay of the economy that has been badly battered this year's political turmoil.
Abroad, some worry the Islamist rise will lead to an unfriendlier stance toward Israel, which has a long-standing peace treaty with Egypt.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Tuesday that whoever comes to power in Egypt must respect fundamental rights.
"Transitions require fair and inclusive elections, but they also demand the embrace of democratic norms and rules," she said. "We expect all democratic actors to uphold universal human rights, including women's rights, to allow free religious practice."
But many Egyptians thought religious-based rule would be better than the corrupt regime that came before.
"We had enough illusions," said voter Yasser al-Haddad, 36. "We want the one who rules as God says."