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(Residents inspect damage to the Sidi Abdel Rahman shrine at a mosque in Qalyoub, north of Cairo April 3, 2011/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany)

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.