CAIRO – In a tiny mosque in southern Egypt, the cleric railed in his sermon against opponents of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, comparing them to "the Devil, who rebelled against God and was kicked out of heaven." Among the Muslim worshippers, a 42-year-old civil servant had enough.
Recounting the incident, Nasser Ahmed said he stood up and chanted, "Down with the rule of the Guide," referring to the head of the Muslim Brotherhood, the conservative political powerhouse from which Morsi hails. Other worshippers in the el-Lawa Mosque joined the chanting. Some became so angry they rushed the cleric and tried to beat him up, Ahmed told The Associated Press.
The outburst during the Friday sermon earlier this month in the Luxor province village of Bouairat hasn't been the only case of the faithful lashing out at preachers who stray into politics. It was part of growing signs that, after a year of Morsi's presidency and two years of growing Islamist political power in general, religiosity is not the political selling point it once was among Egyptians.
Increasingly, Egyptians denounce "wrapping politics in the cloak of religion," even in rural areas seen as the heartland of the conservative, "piety" voter. Along with anger over Egypt's economic woes and discontent with Morsi's managing of the country, the disillusionment is a factor fueling support for massive protests to demand Morsi's removal, planned for Sunday.
Egyptians are hardly becoming less religious. But more are losing their belief that someone who touts his religiosity is necessarily a trustworthy, clean and effective politician. Even one ultraconservative party, al-Nour, is shifting its stance in response to the new cynicism.
Though not universal, the shift has been fast. In the series of elections since the fall of Hosni Mubarak in early 2011, it was a common refrain from voters that Islamists' piety means they will not be corrupt and will work for the good of the people. That helped boost the Muslim Brotherhood and the more ultraconservative movement known as Salafis to win every vote.
Over years under Mubarak, the conservative Muslims' beard and "zabiba" — a mark on the forehead from prostration in prayer — came to be seen as signs of a good man. Mubarak oppressed some Islamist groups, giving them the allure of being victims of a corrupt system. Non-political Islamists, who were spared in crackdowns, set up networks helping the poor and filling the vacuum amid Mubarak's neglect of social services.
Now those disillusioned with politicizing religion point to what they call Morsi's failures — fuel shortages, rising prices, continual instability. But they also say they have been turned off by seeing clerics taking political sides on TV, in mosques and at political rallies. Others are alienated by rhetoric on Salafi TV channels they see as dividing Egyptians into good or bad Muslims — or branding opponents as "kuffar," or infidels.
They point to lslamists in parliament and in executive posts, many in religious trappings like beards and robes, engaging in the same unseemliness all politicians do: Internal fights, violent rhetoric, planting loyalists in positions, and even the occasional sex scandal.
"The image has been greatly disturbed," said Mohammed Habib, who was once the deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood but split and has become a sharp critic. "The people will not make the same choices as before." He said the group's leadership has hurt itself by being "narrow-minded" and showing "lack of vision."
Kamal Habib, a researcher in Islamic movements, said that "politicizing religion has led people to doubt the channels they long trusted and even viewed as sacred."
A spokesman for the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party argued that religiosity was not why people voted for Morsi. Rather it was because Morsi belonged to a group — the Brotherhood — that has a foot in every village and town and has always been close to the people, said Abdel-Mawgoud Dardery.
He blamed private media and Mubarak loyalists for misrepresenting Morsi. Media "tarnished the image of President Morsi, he said, while old regime elements "have been trying to sabotage the economic process of the country."
Indeed, religion was not the Brotherhood's only or even strongest selling point in legislative elections it dominated in late 2011-early 2012 or in Morsi's win. The group boasts Egypt's most powerful organizational network, with cadres to campaign for it nationwide, and a history of charities that helped the poor. That means it would likely still perform strongly in any election in the near-term.
Still, Brotherhood officials often lean on religious rhetoric, talking of the need to defend the "Islamist project" to rally hard-liners behind Morsi. The president, who frequently says he is the leader of all Egyptians, is less direct but laces his speeches with Quranic references. Nine months into his administration, a book by a supporter listed among Morsi's accomplishments that he was the first Egyptian president with a beard, the first to allow a state TV presenter to wear a conservative headscarf and the first to hold prayers every Friday in a mosque.
In two post-Mubarak referendums, including December's which passed the new constitution, Salafi clerics and other hard-liners campaigned for a "yes" vote in each by saying, in one form another, God wanted it.
Such rhetoric seems to have diminishing appeal.
Khadiga Gad el-Mawla, a housewife in the southern city of Deir Mawass in the Islamist stronghold Minya province, says she is no longer a fan of two of the most popular Salafi sheiks, Mohammed Hassan and Mohammed Hussein Yaacoub, who have large followings in mosques and on TV.
"I used to listen when they talked to us about obeying God and the way to heaven," she told AP. "The clerics told us to elect Morsi because he is God's choice. ... But they cheated us."
"The more they say something and do the opposite, the more I get shocked," she said.
Ali Assel, a cleric in the southern city of Nassariya, said he was dismayed by Islamists' battles with the judiciary and the media. Last year, Islamist protesters besieged the Supreme Constitutional Court, preventing judges from ruling on disbanding the interim parliament and the body writing the constitution. Other Islamists barricaded Media City, a complex near Cairo that houses TV stations, angry over "the liberal media."
"Politics corrupted religion," Assel said, adding he was shocked to see the Brotherhood "serving their own agenda and battling to topple down state institutions."
There are few polls in Egypt, so getting a broad picture is difficult. A poll released this week by the Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research, or Basserah, found Morsi's approval rating at 32 percent, compared to 78 percent after his first 100 days in office. The group polled 6,179 Egyptians across the country, with a margin of error of less than 1 percent. It did not ask questions about attitudes on religion.
Among the first blows to religious prestige came with a sex scandal soon after parliament was seated, when a Salafi lawmaker was caught in a compromising position in a car with a woman wearing the "niqab," the black robes and veil that leave only the eyes exposed. Another Salafi who said his facial bruises came from being attacked by enemies was discovered to have gotten a nose job.
Another factor: comedian Bassem Youssef, who has a weekly program in the style of Jon Stewart's The Daily Show. Youssef frequently plays footage of Islamists' TV appearance to show contradictions and mock their rhetoric — so pointedly that he was investigated by police for insulting religion.
Youssef is often seen as an urban, liberal phenomenon. But with an audience of millions, plenty in rural and conservative areas watch him.
Youssef "exposes to the simple people the contradictions of the religious views and the triviality of the clerics," said Atef Ibrahim, 54, head of the chamber of commerce in the southern city of Assiut, who records Youssef's program to watch with his friends over the week.
Saad al-Azhari, a cleric who appears on a Salafi TV station, recognized Youssef's impact. But he said it will be "short-lived."
"Frankly speaking, the Islamist current is losing popularity," he said. "But this is the case for all movements" in Egypt.
He said Islamists' shortcomings have been because their powers are "incomplete" and "there is resistance from within state institutions."
In a telling sign of the diminished power of religious rhetoric, the Salafi al-Nour Party seems to be trying to a subtly different path. Once an ally of Morsi and the second biggest winner in the parliament elections, it has since distanced itself from the president. In a statement this week, it warned against dividing the country into Islamic and non-Islamic camps.
"The party rejects identifying those who oppose the ruing regime as against Islam or the Islamic project," the statement said.