WHEN President Hosni Mubarak called for a referendum Oct. 11 to dissolve parliament and pave the way for elections it was hoped democracy in Egypt would follow the path of Eastern Europe. Egypt's opposition parties, however, do not view elections this fall as likely to be any more democratic than in the past.
Mr. Mubarak's decision to call a vote was less a step toward democracy than the required follow-through on a court decision last May that declared the People's Assembly illegally elected, opposition members say. The May 1987 election discriminated against independent candidates, the court said.
The referendum will probably result in the disbanding of parliament and new elections within 60 days, as required by law. But the opposition remains pessimistic.
``We asked [Mubarak] to be a real democratic ruler. He wants to be, but he cannot accept the results of free elections,'' says Muhammad Helmy Mourad, secretary-general of the Labor Party.
Others express hope that voting will be more pluralistic. ``I think the next election is a good opportunity to show the rest of the world that there is democracy in Egypt,'' said Salwa Goma, senior researcher at Cairo's National Center for Middle Eastern Studies. ``I think Egyptians are ready to participate. They want a share in policy making.''
The Gulf crisis, these analysts say, has showed the Arab world the necessity for democracy.
``The Gulf crisis has been an eye opener for the region to see that most of the regimes here are absolutely obsolete,'' says Mona Makram Ebeid, a member of the Wafd Party's executive committee. The regimes are ``out of pace with the new trend appearing today: broader participation of the people, democracy, respect of human rights,'' she says.
Rigging elections has long been a practice in Egypt, opposition party members say. Ballots of people who have died, moved overseas, or abstained from voting are falsified in favor of Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP), they say.
``My father died in 1975,'' said Riaat Said, secretary of the central committee of the leftist Tagamou Party. ``He is still voting today.''
Although accurate figures are not available, only an estimated 10 to 20 percent of the electorate votes in the cities, and about 40 to 50 percent voting in the country.
Official party members deny falsification of election results. ``Since we started the electoral system nobody wanted to accept the results of the elections,'' says Muhammad Abdullah of the NDP and member of the People's Assembly. ``It is easier for them to say they have been twisted.''
Security police, stationed at voting sites, prevent voters of opposition candidates from entering, the opposition says, adding that others are denied the election cards required to vote.
In response, Mr. Abdullah questions how the police can know who is going to vote for which candidate. He also accuses opposition parties of violence against supporters of their opponents.
The opposition has asked for a better system of accounting for those voters who participate. For example, citizens could register with their thumb print, they say. Opposition members have also requested that judges or the candidates themselves supervise elections, instead of the police, and that martial law in effect since 1981 be suspended during elections.
The Ministry of the Interior announced Oct. 8 that the number of judges monitoring elections would be increased, and police must remain outside the polling stations.
Mubarak's NDP needs to secure 67 percent of the 458 seats in the People's Assembly in order to maintain his legislative majority.
The NDP won 338 seats in the last elections in May 1987, the opposition 92, and the independents 28.
In May of this year the election was challenged for discriminating against independent candidates by using party lists that gave nine seats in each of the 48 constituencies to party candidates and one seat only to independents.
According to the new electoral law, the lists have been discarded, constituencies have been increased to 222, and all candidates will run as independents.
Most parties are not overly optimistic that the new law will offer them a fairer chance. Even the Muslim Brotherhood, whose support base has grown with the increased acceptance of Islamic fundamentalism around the Arab world, does not expect major gains. When asked how many seats the brotherhood might win in the coming elections, Muhammad al-Hodaibi, a prominent member, said: ``You can ask [the government] how much they will permit.''