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QALYOUB, Egypt (Reuters) - Wielding crowbars and sledgehammers, two dozen Islamists arrived at the Sidi Abdel Rahman shrine in the middle of the night aiming to smash it to pieces.
Word spread quickly through the narrow, dirt roads of the poor Egyptian town of Qalyoub. Within minutes, the group were surrounded and attacked by residents who rallied to defend the site revered by their families for generations.
"They say the shrine is haram (something forbidden in Islam), but what they are doing is haram," said Hussein Ahmed, 58, describing the shrine attackers as Sunni fanatics, at least two of whom witnesses said were then badly beaten.
Acts of hardline vigilantism in Egypt are fuelling debate and concern about the role Islamists will play after the demise of President Hosni Mubarak, who suppressed Islamist groups which he saw as a threat to his rule.
Seeking to ease concerns among moderate Egyptian Muslims, secularists and the Christian minority, the ruling military council has said it will not allow Egypt to turn into an Iran-style theocracy.
The gang of bearded youths did limited damage to the Sidi Abdel Rahman shrine. The locals who thwarted their attack blame a break down in state control for allowing them to even try to impose their ideas on how Islam should be practiced.
They say five other shrines have disappeared in Qalyoub on the northern outskirts of Cairo in the weeks since Mubarak was toppled from power, part of what Egyptian media has declared a campaign by ultra-orthodox Salafists.
The head of al-Azhar, Egypt's most prestigious seat of Islamic learning, has called for efforts to confront hardline doctrine. "We'll be up to our knees in blood," Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayyib warned, as quoted by Shorouk newspaper.
The recent acts have awoken old tensions between Salafists and Sufis, followers of Islam's mystical tradition to whom shrines are an important part of religious practice. Some of Egypt's most famous shrines are also revered by Shi'ites.
The attacks have spread beyond Qalyoub: arsonists set fire to a shrine in the Nile Delta town of Tala on Sunday, security sources said, widening the scope of a campaign that has echoes of Pakistan. Sunni hardliners have blown up shrines there.
Some accuse the media of exploiting a handful of cases to scare-monger: playing on fears of Islamists suppressed by Mubarak to strengthen the case of conservatives seeking a return to the authoritarian ways of his regime.
Others see acts of Islamist vigilantism as a warning sign about the intentions of hardliners, including groups with a violent past which have resurfaced for the first time in years, though these appear to have nothing to do with recent attacks.
Reports of other acts of hardline vigilantism include an arson attack on the home of a woman deemed of "ill-repute" and a punishment attack which involved a man's ear being cut off.
Hardliners were also suspected of vandalising night clubs in the weeks after Mubarak was toppled, though some bar owners now blame those attacks on criminals rather than Islamists.
In Qalyoub, residents angered by the attack on the Sidi Abdel Rahman shrine say Egypt's new freedoms have gone too far.
Some talked nostalgically about State Security, the internal spying agency which Mubarak used to suppress Islamists and other dissidents. Notorious for human rights abuses, it was dissolved in March in line with reformists' demands.
"There is no government. Whoever wants to do something can do it," said Ahmed, speaking next to a pile of splintered timber that was once part of the shrine. "It's the first time it's happened in Qalyoub and the government is doing nothing."
Dotted across Egypt, shrines dedicated to revered figures from Islamic history have played a part in popular religious practice for centuries. Pilgrims believe they offer spiritual blessing.
But shrines are the subject of controversy among Islamic scholars, especially when they are in or near mosques. To hardline Salafists, they represent a form of heresy.
The campaign against the shrines has drawn severe criticism from Egypt's Mufti. In a Friday sermon, he accused the perpetrators of having a "narrow understanding" of Islam and "causing strife in society."
Leaders of Sufi movements, whose followers are estimated to number in the millions in Egypt, are forming groups to protect shrines, according to local media reports.
Saeed Darwish, a 63-year old Sufi sheikh who lives a short distance from the Sidi Abdel Rahman shrine, said Salafists have been ever more apparent in the weeks since Mubarak was toppled.
"These people were never seen. Today they are a big group," he said. "Our grandfathers' grandfathers knew this shrine."
At one Qalyoub mosque, turquoise tiles mark the spot where the shrine of Sidi Gamal al-Din had stood until last month. "It was here for as long as I can remember and now it's gone," said a resident, adding that he didn't know who had removed it.
Ahmed Hussein, a local activist with the Nasserite Party and a witness to the Sidi Abdel Rahman attack, said Salafists had removed all five unilaterally: "After state security was dissolved and the regime fell, Salafists started to relax."
There have been efforts to contain tensions.
Sheikh Sayed Abdel-Hayy, a leading Qalyoub cleric who describes his own doctrine as Salafist, said he led prayers in the Sidi Abdel Rahman mosque after the attack.
He blamed the attack on misguided youths who were not part of any organisation.
They had gone astray due to Mubarak-era policies that prevented clerics from engaging and teaching the youth. "What happened was wrong -- wrong in its execution," he said.
"They read books themselves and this could lead to mistakes. They say 'Enough, we'll implement God's law ourselves'. This mistake is being inflated and exploited and rumours are being circulated around it."
Abdel-Hayy, a state-appointed imam, said he supports the idea of removing shrines in mosques, but in an official way and only with local support. There can be no coercion, he added.
Addressing the wave of vigilantism, he said: "There is no doubt that there are mistakes but there are also exaggerations."
Eight Qalyoub shrines had been removed peacefully with official coordination in the last two years, he added. The five others that had disappeared in recent weeks had also been removed peacefully by ordinary people, he said. "In this security vacuum people took matters into their own hands."
Additional reporting by Rasha Mohammed and Sarah Mikhail; Editing by Samia Nakhoul