By Tamim Elyan
ALEXANDRIA, Egypt (Reuters) - At al-Taqwa mosque in Egypt's second biggest city, a preacher defends his ultra-orthodox Salafi group's decision to endorse Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, an Islamist who casts himself as a moderate, in this month's presidential election.
"Don't consider his media statements only. He has various writings that confirm his comprehensive understanding of Islam and his desire to achieve it," Yasser Burhamy, a founder of the Salafi movement in Egypt, tells his Alexandria audience, his message recorded and posted on the group's website.
The poll, expected to go to a run-off in June, is a landmark in a turbulent transition to democracy that could see Egypt elect an Islamist to replace deposed President Hosni Mubarak, who repressed proponents of political Islam throughout his 30-year rule and battled armed Muslim militants in the 1990s.
The endorsement by Burhamy's influential Salafi Call and its political party, al-Nour, has pushed Abol Fotouh towards the front of the pack and undercut Mohamed Mursi, the candidate of the rival Muslim Brotherhood.
But it has divided Salafis, who number as many as 3 million devotees plus other sympathizers among Egypt's 82 million people. Their votes could help swing the May 23-24 election.
Abol Fotouh's stiffest competition in the race, according to sketchy opinion polls, will be Amr Moussa, a former head of the Arab League and one-time foreign minister to Mubarak.
But Abol Fotouh's chances may hinge on whether Salafis unite behind him or split. Some Salafis say they will defy their leadership and vote for Mursi or other Islamist candidates.
"The youth don't have a unified vote. Some say they will follow the sheikhs' decision and others will think and decide by themselves," said Motaz Azmy, 27, in Alexandria, a Salafi stronghold where the movement emerged in the 1970s.
Some Salafis doubt Abol Fotouh's commitment to implementing Islamic sharia law, a central tenet for followers of the strict school, and believe his courting of liberals in his television and press appearances shows he is too ready to compromise.
Many Salafis, though not their parties, had backed Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, a sheikh who vowed to enforce sharia, promised social justice and blamed the West for many of Egypt's ills.
But he was disqualified in April when his late mother was found to have had U.S. citizenship, violating a rule that both parents of a president hold only Egyptian nationality. Abu Ismail's supporters have protested repeatedly in the streets.
The Salafi al-Nour party, with the second biggest bloc in parliament, is backing Abol Fotouh, saying he combines broad popular appeal with commitment to Islamist values, even though it acknowledged some ideological differences.
It said it would not back the Brotherhood's Mursi as it did not want one group "monopolizing power", reflecting a long rivalry among Islamists which dates back to the 1970s.
Burhamy said another Islamist candidate, Selim al-Awa, might have been a popular choice for Salafis, but argued that he lacked Abol Fotouh's ability to draw a range of voters.
Such a calculation shows an unusually pragmatic streak in the Salafi camp, which for years steered clear of politics and often criticized the Brotherhood, founded 84 years ago, for compromising on principles in pursuit of political influence. The Brotherhood bore the brunt of Mubarak's repressive policies.
"They have entered the political game and are presenting compromises in their speech," said Adel Soliman, head of Cairo's International Centre for Future and Strategic Studies.
The Salafis' showing in the parliamentary poll shocked many Egyptians and proved they had a formidable voting machine linked to preachers in 4,000 mosques they are thought to control. Egypt has about 108,000 mosques and other Muslim places of worship.
"Political decisions are weighed on the scale of what is beneficial and what is harmful," Abdel Moneim el-Shahat, a spokesman for the Salafi Call, wrote on the group's website.
He voiced "reservations" about Abol Fotouh's approach, but said: "Nevertheless, we agree that applying (sharia) should start with what's possible."
Not all Salafis agree, and Nour party chairman Emad Abdel Ghaffour, said it was hard to convince them, given that the fledgling party had not fielded a candidate of its own.
Nour officials said they had held back partly because the party was still in its infancy, having been formed shortly after Mubarak was toppled in February 2011, but also because Egypt needed a president who did not only represent one group.
In similar vein, the Brotherhood had initially vowed not to run a candidate so that Egyptians would not think it was seeking to monopolize power, but the group then staged a U-turn.
Abol Fotouh was expelled from the Brotherhood last year when he defied its wishes and ran for president. His break with the movement founded 84 years ago may make him attractive to some Salafis. But others oppose him, taking exception to what they see as comments dismissive of Salafis.
"He described us as far-right and said things that contradict sharia ... Salafis can't convince others about him because they themselves aren't convinced," said Omar Abdel Aziz, 24, a Nour party member who said he was backing Mursi.
Another group, the Religious Authority for Rights and Reform, which includes Salafi scholars as well as Brotherhood members, has endorsed Mursi, who says he is the only real Islamist in the race.
Abol Fotouh repeatedly says Egypt needs "moderate" Islam, calling himself a "religiously conservative liberal" and at other times an "Islamist." He says a Christian or woman could be president, a view Salafis oppose.
Since he was endorsed by Salafis, Abol Fotouh has reached out to them, promising that laws not compatible with sharia will be changed and sharia - not "the principles of sharia" as the current constitution says - would be the source of legislation.
But Nour party hardliners like Abdel Aziz are unconvinced.
"People voted for Nour for the sake of religion and nothing else," he said. "If Abol Fotouh wins, it will be the dark ages for Salafis and liberals will flourish."
(Editing by Edmund Blair and Alistair Lyon)