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* Egyptian Salafists enjoy freedoms not seen since the 1970s
* In old heartlands, they hold meetings, reorganise
* Once militant, Gama'a Islamiya says gives up violence By Tom Perry and Marwa Awad
CAIRO, Feb 21 (Reuters) - Islamists who suffered some of the toughest oppression of President Hosni Mubarak's era are speaking out and regrouping for the first time in years, making the most of freedoms they have not enjoyed since the 1970s.
Egypt's Salafists are resurfacing, from groups that once took up arms against Mubarak's administration, such as the Gama'a al-Islamiya, to others only involved in peaceful preaching to advance their fundamentalist vision of Islam.
The Gama'a al-Islamiya's return to prominence worries some Egyptians. The name hit world headlines in 1997 when its followers massacred foreign tourists at a temple in Luxor, ignoring a truce to which its leadership is still committed.
In the wave of freedom that has swept Egypt since Mubarak was toppled, the Salafists have returned to the mosques from which they were banned. Clerics who have been out of the public eye for years are reappearing from Assiut to Alexandria.
They hope to take their place in a new Egypt where Islamists are assuming a more assertive role: the mainstream Muslim Brotherhood is becoming ever more vocal in stating its views on what the new military-led government should be doing.
For now, the Salafist movements say they aim to revive their work in da'wa, meaning calling people to their fundamentalist version of Islam based on the foundations of the religion.
Tasting freedom, some talk about going into politics. But after years of suppression, their chances of making an impact appear limited. The Brotherhood is in a much stronger political position. It is well organised and has broader appeal.
For Egyptians, the Gama'a name evokes memories of bloody chapters in the country's past, from the 1981 killing of Anwar Sadat, in which they were involved, to an insurrection waged by the group in the 1990s involving low-level warfare with police.
More than a thousand people died in the violence.
But Gama'a leaders, who formally abandoned violence more than a decade ago, say they remain committed to peaceful activism.
From their heartlands in southern Egypt, a main theatre of the war between the Gama'a and the state in the 1990s, they convey a message which they hope will find acceptance: give us freedom and we can help combat the draw of al Qaeda.
"Opening the door to freedom is what will stop the youth from going to al Qaeda or others," said Sheikh Abdel-Akher Hammad, a veteran member of the group and one of the clerics who has been speaking in public for the first time in years.
"We did not have a role. But now we are gathering the youth, we are making them aware," he said in a telephone interview from Assiut, the town in southern Egypt where the Gama'a developed in the 1970s and last week held its first meetings in 15 years. His story echoes that of other leading members of the Gama'a, spending much of his life either in jail or on the run.
Some find it hard to believe that Gama'a leaders who shared prison cells with the likes of Ayman al-Zawahari can play a role combating the kind of radicalism still espoused by the al Qaeda No. 2, whose militant career began in Egypt.
The country has long been an incubator for all types of political Islam, including the most violent forms that led to the emergence of al Qaeda, which adheres to the "jihadist", violent form of Salafism once embraced by the Gama'a.
Obsessed by the Islamist threat, Mubarak remained suspicious of groups such as the Gama'a, even after they published revisions to their ideas that shunned violence.
The Gama'a leaders say those revisions were the product of conviction, not expediency. "Police died, members of the Gama'a died, and no benefit or goal was realised," Hammad said.
"The main reason for the revisions wasn't just the losses on our part, but the damage to society as a whole," he said. The Gama'a formally ceased fire in 1997, a few months before the group attained international infamy when a group of followers broke ranks and massacred 62 people at a pharaonic temple in Luxor.
Gama'a leaders who had spent decades behind bars have gradually come out of prison in recent years. But they were forbidden from speaking by security forces that kept close tabs on them. That all changed when Mubarak was toppled.
They hope the current freedoms will continue. This, they say, is the best guarantee against any further growth in the militant ideas of al Qaeda, whose appeal represents a challenge to the Salafists as they seek to reestablish their following.
Montasser al-Zayyat, an expert on Islamist groups, said al Qaeda's influence had grown in Egypt in the last five years, partly because of the curbs Mubarak had placed on the established Salafist groups.
He linked attacks since 2005, including a wave of bombings in the Sinai Peninsula, to "the growth of the Salafist jihadist school" espoused by al Qaeda.
"The security forces were choking the moderate trends in the Islamist movement and those jihadist movements which had carried out revisions," he said in an interview.
"The phenomenon of jihadist Salafism has increased," he added.
"They do not have a clear organisation that represents them on the ground," he said. "They are underground."
Long opposed to violence, the Salafist movement in Alexandria is acutely aware of the dangers. On New Year's Day, the city was rocked by a bomb attack on a church that killed 23 people. The Salafist movement condemned the attack but 200 of its members were rounded up in a security sweep.
Concerned mainly with religious learning, the Alexandria Salafists always have disassociated themselves from the violence of the Gama'a and other militants.
Yet they faced tight restrictions throughout Mubarak's era. One of their leading clerics, Sheikh Ahmed al-Mahalawi, had been banned from speaking in the mosque from 1996 until Mubarak was toppled. He reappeared in recent weeks.
The Alexandria Salafists held their first conference in five years on Feb. 8. It was attended by thousands.
In the wake of a Jan. 1 church attack, the Alexandria Salafist leadership had appealed for greater freedom so they could combat "ideas circulated by the Web".
"Repression breeds explosion," they said in written answers to questions from Reuters following the attack. "The best guarantee to avoid individuals getting out of control is to encompass them in the Salafist curriculum."
Many experts who have followed Egypt's experience with militant groups agree that Mubarak's approach had backfired. Preserving the current freedoms is the best way to avoid a relapse, they say.
"The potential freedom in the new system will reflect in a positive way on Gama'a Islamiya and reduce the chance of militancy," said Salah el-Din Hassan, an expert on Islamist movements.
Hammad of the Gama'a said: "I knew the people who were fighting in Assiut. Why did they carry arms and adopt Salafist jihadist ideas? Because legitimate channels were closed to them."
Writing by Tom Perry, editing by Peter Millership and Michael Roddy