Continued from page 1

Yasser Moutwaly, a Salafi leader in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, told the Associated Press that the movement planned to set up its own party, though he insisted that entering politics would not mean abandoning its principles.

He said the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood were engaged in preliminary contacts over the possibility of “coordination” in the parliamentary elections.

Another contender is the Gamaa Islamiya, or the “Islamic Group,” a militant organization that fought the Mubarak regime in a bloody insurgency in the 1990s, seeking to establish an Islamic state in Egypt.

It has a base of support in southern Egypt, particularly in the city of Assiut, and is conducting internal elections to create provincial and consultative councils nationwide.

Ominously, the group forced two of its veteran leaders - Karam Zohdi and Nageh Ibrahim - to resign amid criticism that they sold out to authorities when they agreed to abandon violence to win their release after serving long prison terms.

Islamists already are showing their confidence.

In Assiut, which has a sizable Christian minority, Islamists wrested control of mosques from government preachers, installing their own imams and prayer leaders.

The city is filled with signs exhorting residents to follow Islamic teachings and women to wear the hijab, or head scarf. “The hijab is obligatory,” one sign says. “Take your eyes off women,” another chides men.

A recent rumor that Salafis planned to attack female Muslim students at Assiut University who don’t wear the head scarf, prompted some women to stay away from the 75,000-student campus for a day.

Salafis, who reject the veneration of religious shrines and tombs as a sign of idolatry, are believed to be behind the destruction of at least five Muslim shrines in the Nile Delta region the past two weeks.

They also are blamed for attacks on Christians and others they don’t approve of. In one attack, a Christian man had an ear cut off for renting an apartment to a Muslim woman thought to be involved in prostitution; in another, a Muslim was killed for allegedly practicing magic, which the hard-liners denounce, a security official said.

In the oasis province of Fayoum southwest of Cairo, Salafis have forced the closure of four cafes that serve alcohol. They also set fire to four Christian homes in a Fayoum village, prompting clashes with residents, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to share the information with the media.

Salafis also have threatened to destroy some of the most revered shrines in Cairo, dedicated to members of Prophet Muhammad’s immediate family and beloved by many more Muslims.