In Zeitoon, a Cairo suburb, the ruling party of President Hosni Mubarak held a rally this week to campaign for seats in Egypt's coming parliamentary election. About 1,000 people turned out, many of them children in Western dress. After they saw two famous soccer players on the podium, many of them left.
Across town the next evening, near the 4,000-year-old pyramids, an opposition party alliance held its own rally.
Some 1,500 enthusiasts turned out. About one-third of them were wearing the white robes and caps of Islamic militants. The crowd yelled, ``there is no God but Allah,'' a universal Islamic chant, and ``the Koran is our constitution,'' an allusion to the call by the alliance for Sharia (Islamic law) to become the law of the land.
This election campaign, Egypt's first in three years, has increasingly become a contest between the ruling National Democratic Party, with its Westernized outlook, and the tripartite alliance that represents the Islamic trend. The Liberals, Social Labor Party, and the Muslim Brotherhood form the alliance. The Muslim Brotherhood itself is not a legally recognized association, but its members are running on the alliance ticket.
Three other opposition parties are participating: the right-wing Wafd Party, the Marxist Tegamu or National Progressive Unionist grouping, and the tiny Umma Party.
But it is the Muslim Brotherhood, with its religious rather than political platform, that is posing the main challenge to President Mubarak's government.
The two-week long campaign ends this coming Sunday. On Monday, Egyptians will vote for 448 members of the People's Assembly or parliament, one of whose duties is to nominate the President for a new term later this year.
According to political observers, the opposition alliance's rallies are drawing the largest and most enthusiastic crowds. And Mr. Mubarak's party is working hard to draw voters who might be lured away by the three-party alliance.
The two main groups in the election are the ruling party ``establishment'' and the Islamic groups, according to Mohammed Sayed Ahmad, a political analyst and a member of the Tegamu Party.
``Mubarak [has] succeeded in muting the acuteness of this polarization through the [secular] opposition parties and their press. But at election times, the pattern reemerges. It is fundamental,'' Mr. Sayed Ahmad says. ``Clearly, it's a struggle between two cultures - one Western and the Islamic alternative. It's an issue of identity.''
Islamic observance has been on the rise in Egypt in the last few years.
In the 1984 elections, nine Muslim Brothers entered parliament in an alliance with the Wafd Party. This election is expected to provide a newer assessment of the popularity of fundamentalism as a political movement.
But though observers say the election has become a contest between secular and Islamic trends, they also claim that it will not be a true referendum on Islamic fundamentalism, because the vote count will likely not be accurate.
The opposition parties have alleged that the government intends to cheat. Of the 13 million registered voters, the opposition parties allege, 3 million are Egyptians working overseas and therefore ineligible.
Two million on the election rolls, the opposition parties claim, are deceased. Of the remaining 8 million, they predict, only 3 million will vote, leaving the door open for the ruling party to fill in ballots for the absentees. The opposition parties say the government has refused to create polling procedures that would make ballot stuffing impossible.
Pro-government sources say that there will not be wholesale rigging unless the government ``panics.'' There is widespread agreement that the National Democratic Party (NDP) will end up with about a 75 percent majority in parliament.
Meanwhile, the Islamic trend has become so popular that the ruling NDP has been trying to portray itself as Islamic in what many here say is an attempt to undercut the Islamic alliance.
The NDP's campaign logo is the crescent, an Islamic symbol. Its banners are dark green, the color of Islam.
The NDP is also widely seen as playing the game of election economics.
This tactic, observers here point out, is one frequently used in Western countries by incumbents. During this campaign, Agriculture Minister Youssef Wali, announced that legal action against farmers charged with illegally building on agricultural land will be dropped, land will be given to squatters, and fish to prospective fish farmers. The government also said it would help find jobs for college graduates and would grant new low-cost housing loans.
Nevertheless, many of the NDP rallies, even those with government ministers present, have attracted meager crowds. Some political analysts say this is proof that the government party has no real grass-roots following.
But the low turn-out, analysts say, is also symptomatic of a problem endemic to Egypt in recent years - a general indifference to elections.
Of the handful of Egyptian ``men on the street'' queried in the last few days, all said they were not going to vote either because they weren't registered or because they didn't care.
Egyptian apathy to elections grew during the regimes of Presidents Gemal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat, apparently because the announced results were always 99.9 percent in favor of the ruler.
Many Egyptians say they won't return to the polling place until they are sure the votes will not be tampered with and that one man will equal one vote.