Cairo — Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak seems to have outpolled - and outsmarted - his opponents in the nation's freest elections in years. Still, looming beyond his apparent electoral win are inherited social and economic problems that the voting, however ''democratic,'' could not begin to touch.
Perhaps they're best reflected in the eyes of a middle-aged woman named Fatmeh, who sells newspapers for pennies a day in a back alley of this sprawling , dusty, jam-packed capital on the Nile.
Illiterate and alone, Fatmeh lacks a roof over her head, much less the radio or TV that would have relentlessly reminded her in recent weeks of the approaching election day.
''I didn't vote. I didn't know there was an election. No one told me,'' she says apologetically.
As if to make up for her error - and to counter the chuckles of more well-to-do men smoking their hubble-bubble pipes and sipping tea at nearby sidewalk tables - she quickly adds: ''But I do know that Mubarak is our president.''
Then, quietly, she asks the pair of Monitor reporters who had approached her: ''Please, can you find me an apartment, maybe. Or a little room. Just a place to live. . . .? I've gone to government offices, but they do not help. . . .''
In the short run, the election may well give Mr. Mubarak a stronger hand in dealing with more tractable policy issues at home and abroad.
Specifically, the following effects are expected:
* A reinforcement of his ''cold peace'' approach to dealing with Israel.
* A greater latitude for him to place his own, post-Sadat, stamp on domestic policy, notably in cracking down on political extremism, economic corruption, and waste.
Final results from Sunday's voting for a new Parliament are expected Tuesday or Wednesday.
But the consensus prediction here - based on some returns, Egypt's national character, and history - is that Mr. Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP) will retain at least a two-thirds majority in the reconstituted legislature. Parliament elects Egypt's president.
The strongest of the recently legalized opposition parties - the rightist New Wafd - is expected to get somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of the rest. One of two other parties - one, leftist, the other ''socialist Islamic'' - could pick up the leavings.
But Egypt's complex electoral law means that if neither gets a minimum 8 percent vote nationwide, their tally will go to the majority NDP.
If predictions are borne out, Mubarak may have won the best of both worlds in his new Parliament.
He will have lent ''democratic legitimacy'' to his policies, yet kept a sufficiently hefty parliamentary majority to overrule his opponents at will.
Significantly, a ranking New Wafd figure remarked privately that he'd rather his party end up with less than an 8 percent vote nationwide, and no seats in Parliament, than the 10 percent to 20 percent current predictions suggest.
Officials in the opposition charged, meanwhile, the elections had been far less ''honest'' than promised.
New Wafd's leader called them a ''stage show.'' Leftist chief Khalid Mohieddin scoffed that only ''violence and forgery'' could keep the NDP in power.
The allusion was to the election-day murder of an opposition candidate, and to allegations that non-NDP representatives had been barred, sometimes violently , from observing polling procedures.
Still, the voting was the first for decades in which opposition parties, not just individual opponents of government policy, were competing.
A pro-opposition Cairo journalist remarked: ''The assumption is that there will be at least some cheating in favor of the NDP. That is Egyptian tradition. But it really does seem the scale has been more limited than in the past. And with or without cheating, Mubarak would almost certainly have won handily.''
In the Cairo alleyways Fatmeh the newspaper-seller calls ''home,'' the reasons become clear:
Mubarak's modest style of leadership and life, in contrast to the late Anwar Sadat, seems to have won him genuine personal support. Between puffs on hubble-bubbles, more than a few Cairenes expressed reservations about the NDP, or about the fairness of the election. But always came the postscript: ''Mubarak himself is good. . . .''
Built into Egyptian society is a deep conservatism, a bias against change. Egypt's gentler version of the well-known English proverb was often cited by voters: ''The person you know is better than the one you don't.''
In this case that ''person'' is also president. It is his government alone that can provide the goods and services Egypt's hard-pressed population of 47 million wants and needs. One woman remarked that to vote for the opposition in these circumstances would be a mere exercise in political ''theory.''
Yet remarks from Cairenes are also a reminder of real social and political strains even an electorally victorious Mubarak must closely watch. Among them are the poverty and illiteracy of people like Fatmeh - potential fuel for political extremism of a kind not represented among any of the competing parties.
Egypt's galloping overpopulation makes poverty an especially hard nut to crack.
Also, there is strain between young and old. A 30-year-old voter, Kamal Hussein, put it best. Unaware of the electoral rules that required the voter to choose a single party list, he said on arrival at his polling station:
''I don't want to live in the past. . . I'm going to vote for candidates from several parties in order to encourage competition,'' and help pump new blood into the political system.
Sunday's voting may not promise much of that commodity. Perhaps nothing so clearly suggested this as the image of the New Wafd's septuagenarian leader as he arrived, nattily garbed, to cast his ballot in a posh area of Cairo.