Outlawed Muslim Brotherhood walks the streets of Cairo

Earlier this week on a main commercial street in Doqqi, a middle class suburb of Cairo, there was a scene unthinkable even a few months ago.

 Not a single uniformed policeman was in sight as a procession of hundreds of supporters of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, both men and women, marched in an orderly formation down the street chanting slogans in support of Hazem Abu Ismail, their parliamentary candidate.

Mr Abu Ismail”s banners, printed with the group”s controversial electoral slogan “Islam is the solution”, were strung across the street and no one had torn down his posters. Dressed in a dark suit and sporting a bushy beard, he entered shops and cafes, shaking hands and asking people for their support in next Wednesday”s parliamentary election.

“In the last election in 2000 it would have been impossible to hold a similar procession,” said Mr Abu Ismail. “Then we only had small ones and we finished them very quickly before the security forces could find out and disperse them.”

The margin of freedom so far afforded to the Muslim Brotherhood during this campaign is unprecedented in a country where previous parliamentary elections have been marred by high levels of fraud and violence, much of it aimed at the outlawed group – the largest opposition force in the country.

This time, however, the election is being seen at home and abroad as a test of President Hosni Mubarak”s commitment to reform, and the authorities appear determined to project a more tolerant image.

“The regime appears to have decided that the cost of maintaining the status quo is too high given the international focus on reform in Egypt,” said Gamal Abdul Gawad, an analyst at the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

“In addition, the ruling party has very high chances in this election because ordinary Egyptians are still unpoliticised. So this is the best moment to hold credible elections that would satisfy both the domestic elite and foreign partners without the risk of serious losses.”

After 24 years in office, Mr Mubarak announced earlier this year that he would introduce changes that he promised would deepen democracy. In September, he won the country”s first contested presidential election under rules that in effect barred independents.

But the parliamentary election is a different proposition, because the Muslim Brotherhood, which runs its candidates as independents, enjoys grassroots support.

Brotherhood officials say if the election were free and fair, their candidates would secure 60-70 seats in the 454-seat parliament. Analysts expect a lower figure of about 40, which would still more than double the Brotherhood”s members in the outgoing parliament.

“This is the first time in 20 years that we have no one in prison as elections approach,” said Essam El Erian, a Brotherhood spokesman, who was released in October after six months in detention following demonstrations in May.

“The interior ministry has promised to be neutral on election day but we also wonder if the government will use thugs to stop our supporters from reaching voting stations instead of the security forces as it did in the past. All this could make for a bloody election day, because at the moment the expectations of the supporters of candidates on all sides have been raised.”