By Tom Perry
CAIRO (Reuters) - A sheikh who blends hardline Islamism with revolutionary zeal is emerging as a frontrunner in the race for the Egyptian presidency, buoyed by a popular touch which even his critics say is striking a chord with many voters.
Hazem Salah Abu Ismail's message has moved from the mosque to the masses in the year since Hosni Mubarak was swept from power, helped by a campaign which to date appears one of the best funded. His posters are everywhere, put up by dedicated supporters to whom he is both a celebrity and visionary.
"This man knows how to speak to people in their own language," said Aladin Nounou, a factory owner who says most of his 600 workers count themselves as Abu Ismail admirers.
A lawyer by profession, Abu Ismail got a warm reception from thousands of adoring students at a Cairo University rally on Tuesday. A day later, there was another big turnout in Mansoura, a Nile Delta city north of the capital.
To liberals, leftists and others worried by the rise of Islamist influence in the post-Mubarak Egypt, the prominence of a man committed to a tighter application of Islamic law is yet another cause for concern about the direction of the country of 80 million. Islamist parties already dominate the parliament.
Analysts who discounted him a few months ago believe that Abu Ismail could make it to the second round of the election, foreseeing a run-off that might pit him against former Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa, a liberal nationalist, or another of the candidates.
With the long beard of a Salafi Muslim, softly-spoken Abu Ismail is finding supporters among Egyptians who voted for both the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultraconservative Nour Party in the legislative elections. Together, they won two thirds of the parliament.
To date, neither has decided to field their own candidate for the presidency, though the Brotherhood is reviewing a previous decision not to run. Trying to project a moderate image, the group has distanced itself from the Salafis.
Abu Ismail is the most hardline of a group of independent Islamists running in the May election. He is campaigning under the slogan "We will live in dignity" - a statement splashed in conservative blue across T-shirts worn by his supporters.
While he has said there should be no quick application of strict Islamic codes, his program says a Muslim ruler should work towards applying widely-accepted elements of the sharia, for example, by prohibiting alcohol - a step that could have a deep impact on an economy heavily dependent on tourism.
Abu Ismail's critics have gone online in an effort to undermine his credibility. He has been the focus of hundreds of irreverent jokes on the web.
There are also allegations - denied by his supporters - that Abu Ismail's funding is coming from the Gulf and that he is manipulating religious sentiment for political gain.
"There is something that is unequal," said a worker from a rival campaign. "The kind of money he is spending all over the country, the advertising, the fliers, the posters. We have no idea where his funding is coming from."
Abu Ismail does not shy away from controversy. In an interview with a religious TV channel posted on Youtube last year, he said he and al Qaeda shared the same goal - an apparent reference to an Islamic state - though he added that the militant network that advocates global jihad was "mistaken".
His supporters cite charisma, composure and an unambiguous commitment to religious law as some of his assets. "He is truly a sincere person," said Ahmed al-Sayed, a 21-year old engineering student who voted for the Brotherhood in the legislative election but is now campaigning for Abu Ismail.
"That mixture of charisma and Islamic law is something that is appealing. Nobody else is really offering that," said Shadi Hamid, an expert on Islamist movements at the Brookings Institute in Doha. "There is a place for right-wing populism."
In southern Egypt, Abu Ismail posters have been plastered to wells in villages that are hard to find on the map and near ancient Pharaonic temples. In one village, two of his admirers, both women, made no mention of his Islamist credentials but said they liked his soft tone and believed he had the patience to fix the country.
Abu Ismail's appearance at Cairo University on Tuesday offered a glimpse of the popularity he enjoys. Thousands of students squeezed into an auditorium to hear him speak, packing the aisles. Some perched precariously on window ledges.
"The people want Hazem Abu Ismail," they chanted, stamping their feet in unison and unleashing a deafening cheer as he took to the stage. Dozens of campaign workers formed a human chain to hold back crowd surges. At least one attendee fainted.
Jostled by supporters as he took his seat, a beaming Abu Ismail spoke for more than an hour, explaining how the country of 80 million had been held back intentionally, all the while maintaining the calm tone seen as one element of his appeal.
The economy had been forced into an over reliance on tourism to make it subservient to foreigners, he said, though he pledged to expand the industry's income eight-fold.
"WE ARE NOT A WEAK NATION"
Dressed in a suit and tie, he alleged that both United States and Israel were seeking to subvert the presidential election to their own ends and cited Iran as a model of a state that had shaken off U.S. influence to stand on its own feet.
He did, however, quickly point out his doctrinal differences with the Shi'ite Islam espoused by its theocratic government.
"The time has come, and hear these words clearly, for us to find the elements of our strength inside our country," he said, triggering chants of "Where are the journalists? The president is here".
"We are not a weak nation," he said.
"By attacking those who are perceived as our victimizers, he hits a favorable chord with his audience," said Mustapha Kamel Al-Sayyid, a professor of political science at Cairo University. "He speaks in a very soft way, using a language that is quite appealing to the Egyptian people."
At 50, Abu Ismail is one of the younger of the frontrunners for the presidency. Moussa is 75. Others include Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, another independent Islamist who was expelled from the Brotherhood last year for deciding to run against it wishes.
(Editing by Ralph Boulton)
(Additional reporting by Dina Zayed in southern Egypt)