In this city's dusty downtown area, a huge cloth banner stretches across the Kasr el Nil, one of the busiest streets. In bold, many-colored Arabic letters it proclaims: ``The phony parliament is over. The future is up to you.'' This banner, and others like it, are a sign that an election campaign is under way in Egypt - an election that will be, Egyptians hope, the freest and most democratic in more than 30 years.
This is the first time in recent years, analysts say, that all of the political trends with a following in Egypt, including Islamic fundamentalism, will compete on their own platforms and face a good prospect of gaining seats in the 458-member People's Assembly.
``From the democratic point of view, this is the first real election with a multi-party system since 1952,'' says Mahfuz Ansari, chief editor of the government-owned newspaper al-Gomhuria.
``[President Hosni] Mubarak is reading the real orientation of the people,'' Mr. Ansari adds. ``The one-man system is over.''
But the ultimate test of the fairness of the April 6 elections that Mr. Mubarak has called will lie in the final vote count. In the past, opposition parties have charged that the results were manipulated. Political analysts say it is certain that Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party will get at least a 65 percent majority in parliament - even if the results have to be manipulated. The assembly is due to renominate Mubarak for a second term later this year.
However, the relatively free structure of the election campaign so far, analysts say, indicates that Mubarak's administration is feeling politically confident these days, after having weathered some major economic shocks. In addition, Mubarak's call for an election is seen as a reflection of his commitment to broadening the democratic process in Egypt.
There is one other factor, analysts say, that forced Mubarak to play his hand and call elections - a possible court ruling that would have challenged the constitutionality of the parliament. After an opposition-ist charged that the parliament was illegitimate because the last elections in 1984 had banned independent candidates from running, it appeared that the Supreme Court might so rule in January. Mubarak hurriedly held a referendum on new elections - a move seen by many of his supporters and foes as an effort to ward off such a ruling.
Under a new election law permitting independents to run, more than 2,000 individuals have submitted their names for the 48 seats reserved for independent candidates.
``What we have in Egypt is not democracy,'' says Ambassador Tahsin Bashir, an Egyptian diplomat with close ties to decisionmakers here. ``It is democratization, a process.''
Since the 1952 revolution - when a group of military officers overthrew King Farouk, paving the way for the 17-year rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser - Egypt's political experience has been authoritarian. Nasser dissolved political parties and ruled almost singlehandedly. His successor, Anwar Sadat, ordained a multi-party system and the 1976 elections were considered the cleanest up to that time. But soon afterward, Sadat dissolved parliament.
In the next People's Assembly, only one opposition member gained a seat, amid allegations that the vote count was rigged. And in 1981, Sadat arrested more than 1,000 political opponents.
Mubarak revived the opposition press and in 1984, four opposition parties participated in parliamentary elections. But because of a law that requires parties to get at least 8 percent of the nationwide vote, only one opposition party, the right-wing New Wafd Party, was seated.
In the current elections, Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP) will be opposed by the Wafd, the left-wing Tegamu party, and the Socialist Labor and Liberal parties, which have joined forces to try to surmount the still operative 8 percent rule. To boost their share of the vote, the parties have absorbed the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood - formally banned but now considered moderate in its views - as well as other Islamic elements. This coalition of forces represents the Islamic trend and the contention that Egypt should institute sharia (Islamic law) as the law of the land.
This grouping will likely exceed the 8 percent threshold. But those parties that expect they might get less than 8 percent of the vote have submitted their leading personalities as independent candidates in many voting districts. For this reason, a full sample of opposition personalities - including militant Islamic fundamentalists, who the government sees as the major threat to its existence - is expected to win seats in the next Assembly.
``The independent card is the most important card of this election,'' says Mohammed Said Ahmad, a member of the Tegamu Party.
``That's where the game will be played. So everybody is putting their relevant people as independents,'' he adds.
With the atmosphere of a real contest prevailing and in an attempt to attract a truly popular following, Mubarak has undertaken a housecleaning of his own party. It is now offering a ticket 40 percent of which represents new faces.
According to Mr. Bashir, Mubarak also wants to ensure that a popular parliament representing a broad spectrum of views is in position before he carries out a planned economic austerity program this summer.
The austerity program is a necessary concession to the International Monetary Fund for a standby credit arrangement.
The sacrifices that such a program would require, analysts say, mean that the government will need the broadest possible support.
``The problem is to prevent Egypt from becoming turbulent by getting people into the system,'' Mr. Said Ahmad says.
But observers say that Mubarak also realizes that the era of authoritarian rule is over and that Egypt is ready for democracy in small steps. Political sources say the President believes this is the one contribution he can make.
``Mubarak didn't make a revolution like Nasser did and he didn't make private enterprise rich like Sadat did. The only thing he offers Egypt is the democratic option,'' says Ismail Sabri Abdallah, a Marxist who served as a minister during the early years of the Sadat regime. He was later arrested under Sadat.
``From the time of the Pharaohs, there remains something holy [in Egypt] about the head of state,'' says Mr. Abdallah, who despite his Marxist credentials has close ties to some decisionmakers here. ``The assassination of President Sadat, a first for Egypt in 5,000 years, was an act of liberation from the Pharaoh complex. The sense of that message is very serious and Mubarak is aware of it.''
Observers also say that Mubarak simply does not have an authoritarian personality in the mold of Nasser and Sadat.
``He does not consider himself a man of destiny,'' Mr. Ansari says.
``He considers himself a man of duty. He sees himself as the man who permitted the opposition parties to go to the parliament.''
Though opposition sources say they expect a campaign waged in a democratic spirit, they argue that in the end the results may be skewed to avoid too great an opposition in the People's Assembly, especially by Islamic militants.
``During the campaign, you will see democratic behavior,'' Said Ahmad says. ``But it's the [counting] procedures we don't know about.''
Nevertheless, the next People's Assembly could be a novel experience for contemporary Egypt, providing a parliament that would be more representative of the different political trends in this country.
Egypt has five legal political parties.
The National Democratic Party is the ruling party.
Members from the four opposition parties are running in next month's parliamentary elections either as independents or on a party ticket. Most legal political parties came into existence during the early part of Anwar Sadat's rule. They include:
Tegamu or National Progressive Unionist Party, which contains Marxist and leftist elements with a strongly secular tone.
Socialist Labor Party, which subscribes to nationalist and populist tenets.
Liberal Socialist Party, which backs the role of private enterprise.
New Wafd Party, right-wing, backed mostly by small businessmen.
There are no legal religious or communist parties because Egypt's Constitution bars parties that represent either religious or class interests.