CAIRO: Egypt's presidential contenders have been going through a new campaign rite of passage. One by one over recent weeks, they appeared before a panel of bearded, ultraconservative Muslim clerics who meticulously question them, including on how they intend to implement Islamic law.
The vetting of candidates in next month's landmark presidential elections is part of a move by Islamist clerics to become power players in Egypt's emerging political system, a sign of the country's dramatic shift during the stormy transition since longtime leader Hosni Mubarak was ousted more than a year ago.
For years, clerics from the ultraconservative Salafi movement built their influence among Egyptians, preaching in mosques and on satellite TV stations. Since Mubarak's fall, they have become political interlocutors meeting with the military generals who took power, holding conferences in five-star hotels and organizing large rallies around the country.
Now they are trying to unite around a single candidate for the presidency, a potentially significant boost for whomever they endorse.
"They are key players in the Egyptian politics or the new centers that shape Egyptian politics," said Khalil al-Anani, an expert on Islamist movement. "It is something no one could have imagined a year ago."
Their efforts have startled many Egyptians. During nearly 30 years of Mubarak's regime, clerics never played such a direct and open role. Salafi clerics themselves traditionally shunned politics, limiting themselves to spreading their faith, and several of their organizations were formed only after last year's revolution as a tool to inject their voice into politics.
"This is really a scene out of Pakistan," said Ibrahim Eissa, the liberal host of a TV political talk show, of the candidates being interviewed by sheiks. "This is very dangerous."
But their efforts have also highlighted the divisions among Egypt's Islamist movements, particularly between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, and among the Salafis themselves.
The 83-year-old Brotherhood is Egypt's strongest political movement and won nearly half of parliament's seats in elections late last year. Salafis, in contrast, are far less monolithic and organized. The Salafis advocate a more conservative vision of Islam, similar to that of Saudi Arabia, and tend to demand a starker ideological purity than the Brotherhood. They are also less experienced in politics. Nevertheless, Salafi politicians scored big in the parliament elections, winning around 20 percent of the legislature's seats.
There are several organizations of Salafi clerics, each trying to decide which candidate to back. The main contenders for their endorsement are the two top Islamists - the Brotherhood candidate, Mohammed Morsi, and Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh, a moderate who broke with the Brotherhood last year.
This week, one organization known as the Religious Legal Commission for Rights and Reform announced its backing for Morsi, after more than 30 hours of meetings with 10 candidates it invited for interviews. The panel went through a list of over 30 questions with each, topped by how the candidate intends to implement Islamic Shariah law, what his foreign policy will be and how he would deal with the clerics if elected.
When Morsi, for example, was asked what was the first country he would visit as president, he replied Saudi Arabia, the heartland of Salafi thought where many of Egypt's Salafi clerics studied.
In video aired on TV and accounts of the interviews posted on the commission's Facebook page, each candidate appears in his Western suit at a table of clerics, bearded and wearing robes, their heads draped with shawls or topped with clerical caps.
In the interview with Abolfotoh - who is also popular among some liberal Egyptians - the commission's secretary-general Mohammed Yosri called him out on his liberal, leftist views.
"The question is, Where is the Islamist school that you belong to? And why do you fear appearing clearly as an Islamist?" Yosri asked.
"I am conservative religiously, not politically," Abolfotoh replied. "If you mean left as in concerned with social justice, then I am a leftist," he said, arguing that social justice and freedom of opinion are part of Islam.
The commission interviewed non-Islamist candidates, but it pointedly refused to invite three candidates with links to Mubarak's regime, including former foreign minister Amr Moussa and Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's last prime minister.
The commission's final choice of Morsi reflected an apparent desire to back a more conservative candidate who has a strong political organization behind him.
Other groups are taking longer to make up their minds. They also have different followings. While the commission is a largely urban-based group of scholars upholding different ideologies, the Scholars Shura Council is made up of clerics who have large followings outside of Cairo and are seen as having a stronger connection with their popular base. Another is the Dawa Salafiya, which is powerful in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria where it is based and is the foundation of the main Salafi political party, the Al-Nour Party.
Those groups have been meeting informally with candidates, and they appear more divided on whether to back Morsi and Abolfotoh.
"The scene is far from monolithic and I think there will be internal rivalries going on left and right," said Omar Ashour, the director of the Middle East studies program at Exeter University and visiting scholar at Doha Brookings Institute who has studied Salafis.
"Even Shariah, it is a rallying word, but when you try to unbox it ... they have different perceptions of it."
There are also political considerations far from religion. Some Salafis fear that if the Brotherhood is allowed to dominate the political scene, it will squeeze others out, including Salafis. There is a worry that the Brotherhood would openly clash with the military and could spark a crackdown on religious groups.
"When they came to politics they wanted to reshape it, but they will become reshaped by it," al-Anani said of the Salafis.
The Gamaa Islamiyya, a former militant group that is now a Salafi political organization, is leaning more toward Abolfotoh, said one leading member, Tareq al-Zomor. "Some have reservations because of the Brotherhood's failure to keep promises to share power," he said, adding that Abolfotoh "is open to all other national groups."
And clerical endorsement doesn't guarantee followers' votes. Salafi clerics built up their popularity under Mubarak in part because they were apolitical, guiding their audience solely in articles of faith. Their followers are aware that politics has different requirements. The Al-Nour Party has seen defections at times when political choices overrode religious considerations.
"There are religious issues, and there are political ones. The religious issues are for the scholars, but politics is a give and take," said Alaa Mostafa, a young man who was among Salafis holding a sit-in protest in Cairo's Tahrir Square.
"The role of the scholars is important but the people are clear that the issue is an 'ijtihad'" - a religious interpretation - "but it is not really a binding decision."