The head of Egypt's ultraconservative Salafist party has said the group might back a moderate Islamic candidate for the presidency and criticised the Muslim Brotherhood's decision to field a candidate in the election to replace overthrown leader Hosni Mubarak.
The hardline al-Nour party is the second biggest bloc in parliament after the Brotherhood and claims broad influence over Egypt's Salafis, whose puritanical approach to Islamic practice is inspired by Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi ideology.
Al-Nour leader Emad Abdel Ghaffour said on Wednesday that moderate candidates such as Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, who quit the Brotherhood last year and has positioned himself as a moderate, were contenders for his party's patronage.
"Al-Nour party's candidate will be the one with an Islamic background and who adopts the application of sharia, even if it is gradual," he said.
The surprise Salafi surge to political prominence has unnerved Egypt's ally the United States and neighbour Israel.
A popular Salafi sheikh, Hazem Abu Ismail, was barred last week from Egypt's first free presidential vote and the remaining Islamist candidates are wooing his supporters. Al-Nour did not field its own contender.
Al-Nour was only formed after Mubarak's toppling, but won more than one-fifth of seats in parliament, trouncing many long-established parties.
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Political experts say the Salafist movement has up to three million devotees and controls as many as 4,000 mosques, making it a formidable force in Egypt's new politics.
Ghaffour portrayed al-Nour as a kingmaker, saying whomever the party backs for the presidency would win.
The party will decide who to back once the state Presidential Election Committee publishes the final list of candidates on Thursday.
An obvious beneficiary might be Mohamed Mursi, the Brotherhood's candidate who has been courting the conservative vote.
Mursi's chief rival is Abol Fotouh, who has proclaimed support for individual freedoms. Many Salafis have shown distaste for Mursi and pushed for more independence from the Brotherhood.
The rivalry among Islamic-oriented candidates could boost the prospects of Amr Moussa, a liberal nationalist and now the only front-runner with government experience.
He was a foreign minister under Mubarak and then head of the Arab League. Moussa got a boost this week when the army approved a law that removed Mubarak's last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, from the race.
Those who served only as ministers under the ousted leader, including Moussa, were exempted from the law.
Abol Fotouh was a senior member of the Brotherhood, but the movement expelled him last year when he announced he would run for the presidency.
Ghaffour said he had told the Brotherhood's initial candidate Khairat al-Shater, who was disqualified by the election committee, that fielding a Brotherhood candidate would be a wrong move.
The vote will take place on May 23 and 24, with a run-off due in June if no one wins more than 50 per cent in the first
round, concluding 16 months of tumultuous interim military rule since Mubarak's overthrow.