BENI SUEF, Egypt (Reuters) - Two main Islamist groups are competing in Egypt's parliamentary election, but some of their grassroots supporters in the provinces say they have much in common and should push together for Islamic rule.
In rural Egypt a complex courtship with an uncertain outcome is under way between supporters of the venerable Muslim Brotherhood and backers of political newcomer, the stricter Islamist al-Nour Party.
While the party leaders may look on their rivals cautiously, many grassroots supporters are reluctant to criticise fellow Islamists even when competing in the first parliamentary poll since Hosni Mubarak's repressive rule was swept away.
Many in the provincial capital Beni Suef and rural areas said differences between the Brotherhood, on the verge of power after 80 years of struggle, and the Salafi Nour Party, born in the months since Mubarak was ousted, were superficial or non-existent.
Between them, the two parties could form a majority bloc in parliament if initial trends in the phased election are, as expected, repeated across the country. The second round of voting was winding up in Beni Suef and elsewhere on Thursday.
If the Islamists did line up, it would be an important factor in determining the complexion of Egypt's next government and its policies. But such an outcome is far from assured.
The leadership of the Brotherhood, the senior partner with the biggest bloc so far, is wary of a wholly Islamist ruling coalition, which Egyptians from other political trends might view as divisive and polarising in a period when they think broader national unity is needed.
But on the ground in the countryside many voters do not attach much importance to such subtleties. They look forward to what they see as a welcome and long-overdue experiment with Islamic government that embraces all like-minded parties.
"Of course the Islamists should be working as allies, because the Brothers and the Salafis (conservatives such as the Nour Party) are the same," said Ahmed Sayed, a supporter of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP.L).
"We've never tried the Islamists in government before, so now it's their turn. God's law must come first," added his companion, hotel receptionist Mahmoud Zakaria, speaking in the town of Kafr Jumaa, about 120 km (80 miles) south of Cairo.
Essam Mohamed, a farmer in the town of al-Maimoun in Beni Suef province, said he had voted for the party list of the FJP and for two individual candidates from the Nour Party, reflecting the porosity between the Islamist groups.
"I see no conflict between them at all," he said. "They are all excellent people, very respectable, with the same objectives."
In Beni Suef, retired civil servant and Nour Party supporter Abdel Moneim Habeesh said an Islamist coalition would be good for Egypt. He blamed secularists and the media for promoting scepticism that the two Islamist groups would work together.
"The Nour Party will apply sharia (Islamic law) and do good things. The Freedom and Justice Party has the same agenda. It has been fighting against corruption, godlessness and subservience to foreigners since 1928, and now its time has come," he added.
The national leadership of the Brotherhood might find it difficult to resist the grassroots support for an alliance that includes the Salafis, even if their initial preference is to seek allies closer to the political centre.
On the other hand, Nour Party members are likely to resent exclusion from government in favour of smaller groups such as liberals and leftists, which they consider to be unrepresentative of a generally pious electorate.
Despite the widespread expressions of solidarity between supporters of two Islamist groups, voters said they were aware that the Brotherhood and Nour Party had different perspectives.
"The Nour Party people are close to society. The Brotherhood are close to economics and politics. But it's society that votes. That's why everyone was surprised how many votes we won in the first round," Aboul Walid el-Wardani, a Cairo chef helping the Nour Party with the elections in Beni Suef.
"But in the end we are all Muslims. It's only interference by the media and the liberals that tries to stop us working together," he added.
Nasser Khodeir, a civil engineer and Brotherhood supporter in the town of Tansa, said Brotherhood members were also Salafi in their beliefs but didn't share the importance Salafis attach to physical appearance, such as clothing and the cut of the beard. Salafis favour robes or trouser cut off above the angle and long beards, usually with the moustache short or shaved off.
"Also the Brotherhood believes in gradualism, that you shouldn't force people to change their behaviour, that it should be done by persuasion and consent," he added.
But even after less than a year in open politics, the Salafis are evolving towards similar positions, he said.
The Nour Party is in fact an offshoot of the Salafi Call movement, which operated in Egypt under Mubarak but confined its activities to religious proselytising and charitable works.
After the fall of Mubarak, it built on the same social networks to create the political party.
Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Alistair Lyon