CAIRO (Reuters) - The Muslim Brotherhood goes into Egypt's first free election in living memory with a strong hand enhanced by recent unrest. Well-organized, the Islamists will be able to get out their vote, even if fears of violence hit the overall turnout.
By far the best-drilled group in the country, the Islamists were in a good position even before the latest unrest triggered by protests against the military rulers who assumed power after Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in February.
Since then, dozens of new parties have struggled to make an impact in a country whose political life was systematically crushed by Mubarak. The only group to survive the oppression, the Brotherhood enjoys name recognition the newcomers lack.
Now, with Egyptians distracted by the battle of wills in the street, the Islamists could exceed their own expectations in the first of three rounds of voting which the generals say will begin as scheduled on Monday.
"The Islamists are the only groups that are organized and can mobilize their followers," said Nirvana Shawky, a member of the Freedom Egypt Party, a reformist group set up this year.
"With this level of fear, it's expected that the only ones who will be able to mobilize the people are the Islamists," she said, making her way to join protests against the military council at Cairo's Tahrir Square.
Unrest set off by the latest wave of protests has resulted in 42 deaths in the last week, the worst spasm of violence since Mubarak was removed from power.
Some Egyptians believe the election should be delayed to guarantee security and to give more time for campaigning disrupted by the turmoil.
The military council, however, is determined to press ahead with the first stage of voting in a newly readjusted timetable to restore power to a civilian government by mid-2012.
Contesting the vote under the banner of its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, the Brotherhood has demanded that elections go ahead on time.
Its refusal to back the latest protests by revolutionary groups has exposed it to charges of putting political expediency ahead of principles.
That is sharply at odds with how the group was perceived during Mubarak's era, when the Brotherhood was one of the few groups that openly spoke out against his rule.
It was the only party that seriously challenged Mubarak's National Democratic Party at the polls, mobilizing a dedicated support base that would brave beatings and tear gas to vote.
What share of the vote the Brotherhood might win in a free and fair election is a matter of debate. Brotherhood leaders have previously forecast the group could win up to 30 percent.
The group's best performance at the polls under Mubarak was in 2005, when it emerged with 20 percent of the seats having only campaigned for a third of those up for grabs.
The election was far from perfect, but two out of three rounds of voting took place in relatively free conditions. The Brotherhood leader who oversaw that campaign has said around 2.8 million people voted for the group in 2005.
Turnout this time had been expected to be at least 30 million of Egypt's 50 million eligible voters. Now, with the shadow of this week's violence hanging over the voting, it is anyone's guess.
"If the elections happen, the turnout will be 30 or 40 percent," Hesham Gabr, a protester in Tahrir, predicted. "People are afraid. It only suits the Brotherhood."
The Brotherhood's success will, in part, be a consequence of the absence of other strong parties.
"It was definitely mission impossible," said Mohammed el-Garhy, another Freedom Egypt Party member, describing the challenge of trying to build a party in a few months.
He noted that the atmosphere of crisis hanging over Egypt has further weakened the position of the newcomers, saying: "I don't think it's the right time to talk about parties or even ideologies ... The parties lost, and this is a sad thing."
Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, said the Brotherhood would dominate whatever the turnout, likely winning between 35 percent or 50 percent of the vote.
"If there is lower turnout, that puts the Muslim Brotherhood in at least a slightly stronger position because they can guarantee their own internal turnout," he said.
"They may even benefit from higher turnout, where a lot of ordinary Egyptians are going to the polls saying, 'We don't know who to vote for, but we've heard about the Muslim Brotherhood.'"
Additional reporting and editing by Alistair Lyon Editing by Alessandra Rizzo