CAIRO — The men gathering outside the yellow mosque agreed: Adulterers should be stoned to death, the hands of thieves cut off.
"But not now," said Kareem Atta, waiting in a cool breeze for the sheik's car to roll up next to the Koran sellers. "Sharia law must be gradually put into place so it doesn't shock the system. You can't cut people's hands off if you first don't give them financial justice."
The young students, engineers and laborers are followers of Hazem Salah abu Ismail, a lawyer and holy man whose poetic blend of populism and ultraconservative Salafi Islam has turned him into a leading presidential candidate. Posters with Ismail's gray beard and boyish face seem to hang on every street and alley across this ancient city.
Ismail is at once provocative and soothing, in a breath switching from genial to fiery. He has suggested revoking Egypt'speace treaty with Israel and holds up Iran as an exemplar of defiance against the U.S. His hard-line rhetoric has nudged American officials closer to the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood, a sign of Washington's scrambling to keep pace with the tremors of the "Arab Spring."
"I will never become a puppet for the U.S. or Israel or any Western power," Ismail said in a recent speech. He added that the U.S. was funneling money to certain Egyptian candidates to "suit their interests" and he urged young Muslims to "spoil such a plot."
Ismail's candidacy, however, may be in jeopardy over an embarrassing link to America. His mother, Nawal Abdel Aziz Nour, who lived with his sister in the Los Angeles area, became a U.S. citizen before she died, according to California public records. That would make him ineligible to run. Ismail claims his mother held only a green card, not a U.S. passport. The election commission, which confirmed that Ismail's mother held an American passport, is expected to decide on whether to disqualify him in coming days.
Ismail's is a robust voice in the fractious political Islam that is spreading across an Egypt freed from three decades of Hosni Mubarak's secular rule. The movement's passions and designs on power are shaking leftists and non-Muslims but also altering the dynamics for Islamists and challenging the dominance of the Brotherhood.
That was evident last week when the Brotherhood, which controls parliament and had promised not to put forward a presidential candidate, broke its pledge and nominated Khairat Shater, a multimillionaire and longtime political prisoner who instantly became a front-runner. Shater represents the middle ground for Islamists, book-ended by Ismail's sharper conservatism and the liberal Islam of Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former Brotherhood member.
Ismail and his competitors embody a new Egypt searching for a religiously resonant yet pragmatic brand of politics that can fix the nation's deep economic and social problems. Similar scenarios are enveloping rising Islamists in Tunisia, Libya and Yemen and will certainly factor in Syria if President Bashar Assad falls.
The son of a late prominent religious scholar, Ismail represented Egyptians, including his opponent Shater, in civil rights cases against the Mubarak government. He embraced last year's revolution before many other Islamists and has been a forceful critic of the ruling military council.
He's a favorite on talk shows and Internet videos, a charismatic speaker who can charm a university crowd as easily as he can raise cheers from millworkers in the provinces. He skims the edge of fundamentalism — he once suggested that he and Osama bin Laden shared the same ends, if not the means, to create an Islamic state — but connects with Egyptians' everyday worries.
"We live in dignity," is his slogan, which highlighted his recent call for Egyptians to each donate 72 pounds ($12) so the country could free itself of American influence by rejecting $1.3 billion in annualU.S. militaryaid.
Such prescriptions may not be widely popular in a country where more than 40% of the population is poor, but they encapsulate Egyptians' rising sense of pride. They also strike at a defiance toward the West that Ismail believes should encompass everyone from politicians to militants. He has said of Bin Laden: May God "be pleased with him and be merciful on him. I hope that God will accept him among believers, martyrs and righteous."
Ismail believes women should be veiled and segregated from men in the workplace. Egypt's lone female presidential candidate, Bothaina Kamel, recently referred to him as a "phenomenon similar to a sci-fi movie." But she added she would support Ismail ahead of secular presidential front-runner Amr Moussa, whom many regard as a throwback to the old regime.
Ismail's recurring message of the power of Islam to transform society was evident outside the Assad bin Forat mosque in Cairo, where he has preached for years. It is his wellspring and sanctuary and, now, an unofficial campaign office of pious men rushing with posters, T-shirts and signature sheets.
"I'm doing this for the sake of God so that we can have sharia law in Egypt," said Yasser Adel, a campaign volunteer. "We need someone with clean hands who knows his religion well and is not corrupt. We should gradually have an Islamic state like in Saudi Arabia, but this must come with respect for all minorities."
Such sentiment alarms women, liberals and non-Muslims anxious over Islamists' control of the legislature and a panel drafting a new constitution. But devotion guides many Egyptians who for years steeled themselves with religion against the state injustices.
The young at the mosque were excited, even surprised, that they could gather without fear of arrest. Theirs was a focused energy not only on their candidate but the prospect of what his election could mean to an Arab world in disarray.
"Egypt is the heart of the Islamic world and if Egypt rises religiously, the whole Muslim world will rise," said Ahmed Fathy, dressed in a pinstriped suit and holding the hand of his daughter. "Sharia means an end to poverty and the corruption that have left this country struggling."
As Fathy spoke, trucks and minivans bearing Ismail's image loaded placards and campaign literature and drove off into the night.
Amro Hassan in The Times' Cairo bureau contributed to this report.