TRIPOLI, LEBANON — When it comes to strange Middle East bedfellows, Lebanon's latest political partnership may be the most unlikely: The leader of one party has a reputation as a playboy with ties to neoconservatives in the Bush administration. The other group is widely viewed as a community of extremists whose puritanical strain of Sunni Islam inspired Osama bin Laden.
Lebanon's Salafists, often equated with terrorists in much of the Arab world, have teamed with Saad Hariri and his mainstream Future Movement to become part of the country's political order.
"They used to be very marginal," Benedetta Berti, a terrorism specialist at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts, said of the Salafists. "Now, they have to be taken into account by any political movement. They have become a significant political force. Not by number, but in terms of the political impact they could have."
The curious experiment, in one of the Arab world's most democratic political systems, could have implications for the rest of the region. In Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Algeria, Salafists are often tossed into dungeons.
"One of the main reasons Salafists join the jihadist . . . and terrorist groups is because of alienation and marginalization," said Mustafa Allouch, a Future Movement lawmaker from Tripoli. "They don't find any hope for expressing their ideas. It's better to accept all types of ideas and put them under the light so they don't grow in the darkness."
But some wonder whether the Salafists are evolving into a democratic political bloc or gaming the system to expand their reach and achieve their extreme goals, which include the radicalization of Sunni Muslims throughout the Middle East.
Salafists are rooted in a 12th century movement within Sunni Islam that argues for a strict interpretation of the Koran. Funded in part by conservative Sunni religious organizations in the Persian Gulf, Salafist mosques and teachings have spread quickly across the Muslim world.
While most other preachers around the Middle East discreetly espouse their puritanical Salafist version of Islam at mosques or prayer groups, adherents in Lebanon are slipping into the mainstream. Sheik Mazan Mohammed openly proselytizes and rails against the political order as he sells spare auto parts out of his small shop in the Bab al Tabbaneh district of this northern port city.
"Politicians are ready to burn down the whole region to satisfy their own needs," Mohammed said. "Our role is to lead the community, to provide them with religion and spiritual support."
Like most of Lebanon's Sunnis, Salafists are largely staunch supporters of parliamentary leader Hariri, whose Future Movement is part of the U.S.-backed March 14 coalition of Sunni, Christian and Druze political organizations opposed to a mostly Shiite Muslim and Christian alliance backed by Syria and Iran.
Hariri has tapped the Salafists' grass-roots social and religious network and strong community ties as a means to build up his base for parliamentary elections in May.
But Hariri, son of slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, makes for an awkward fit for Lebanon's increasingly pious Sunni public. Although Salafists dream of reviving a medieval caliphate, the 38-year-old Hariri appears to be a liberal democrat.
"He doesn't really have any religious values they share," said Sheik Bilal Said Chabaan, one of the few Sunni clerics in Tripoli aligned with Hariri's opponents. "But they're getting money and benefits."
One cleric likened the alliance to the marriage of convenience between pro-business Republicans and the Christian right in America.
"It's the same here," said Khaled Daher, a leader of the Islamic Gathering, a Salafist political group that strongly backs Hariri. "We see Hariri and the Future Movement as the best political movement on the ground for now."
Salafists have long been a factor in Lebanon, but were cowed into silence during Syria's military occupation of the country, which ended in 2005 in the weeks after the assassination of the elder Hariri.
Rafik Hariri was considered the leader of Lebanon's political community, and in the jostling that followed the Syrian withdrawal, Sunnis clung to the political machine that son Saad inherited. Despite doubts about the younger Hariri's capacity to lead them, Salafists became a pillar of his political organization.
"There's no doubt that Rafik Hariri was a very distinguished person who had long experience in politics," Daher said. "I think that Saad Hariri cannot match his father's relations, experience and competence. At the same time, he has shown a lot of resilience."
In other countries, especially Bahrain and Kuwait, critics say, the Salafists are used by Sunni monarchies as proxies to keep down the aspirations of those countries' large Shiite populations. In Lebanon, Sunnis and Shiites are also locked in a political struggle, and fear of the powerful Shiite militia Hezbollah may have driven the Hariri camp closer to the Salafists.
But Hariri supporters say it's unfair to judge the Salafists based on their reputation as would-be terrorists or political tools in other countries.
"The Salafists we have in Tripoli have voiced their interests in being part of the republic, part of the state, which is unlike the Salafists in other places," the Future Movement's Allouch said. "As long as they accept to be part of the state and work peacefully in partnership with others, there's no problem with forming a coalition."