The street is decked out with banners. "We are for Mubarak," they say. "Yes to Mubarak, no to the rat of Bab al-Sha'riyya." Normally, anyone who posted political messages in the streets of Cairo would be in trouble, but these are an expression of gratitude for 24 years of authoritarian rule under Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak.
The banners are strategically located opposite the building where the rat of Bab al-Sha'riyya himself -- better known as Ayman Nour, member of Parliament, founder of the opposition Al-Ghad ("Tomorrow") Party and would-be presidential challenger -- is meeting constituents. Four dark-green riot police vans are on standby across the road, and plainclothes members of the not-very-secret police form a loose picket line around the building. Everyone is watched, and people entering or merely hanging around outside are liable to be asked who they are and what their business is.
A man from Al-Ghad films the meeting. It's a precaution, a party official explains -- in case agents provocateurs stage an incident or the government accuses Nour of saying things he has not said. "This is the only place in the constituency where we are allowed to meet," said Nour's wife, Gamila. "And we are having so many problems with infiltrators."
As a step toward reform, Mubarak has agreed that more than one candidate can contest the presidential election due in the autumn. Parliament, dominated by Mubarak supporters, Tuesday overwhelmingly agreed to the necessary constitutional changes, but the new rules, which have to be approved in a yes/no referendum, create major obstacles for opposition candidates.
Parties with more than 5 percent of parliamentary seats will be able to nominate candidates, but this would rule out all the current opposition parties. Opposition members said it set impossible conditions for independents wanting to stand for election. Even recognized parties would be unable to field candidates after this year's elections, they claimed.
Independent candidates would need 300 signatures supporting their nomination, including 65 from M.P.'s, 25 from members of the consultative council and 10 from local councilors in each of 14 provinces -- a hurdle that Nour may have difficulty surmounting.
President Mubarak says he has still not decided whether to seek a fifth six-year term, but despite his age -- 77 -- and doubts about his health, he is widely expected to do so. Many believe he is trying to contrive an election that will pit him against a bland no-hoper from one of the tamer opposition parties.
One self-declared candidate, feminist writer Nawal el-Saadawi, said last week she had been forced to abandon a meeting after police threatened to arrest the organizers. Another candidate has been denounced as a "foreign agent" and says people have been warned not to attend his meetings.
President Mubarak, meanwhile, has been hogging the limelight with a seven-hour television interview, spread over three nights. In a speech last week, he told Egyptians: "We all have to join forces to defend the future of our democratic process."
The trouble with Nour, from the president's point of view, is that he will put up a lively fight even if he has little chance of winning. A 40-year-old lawyer and journalist with a glamorous TV presenter wife, he has a populist touch that has earned him support among the poorer Cairenes. Earlier this year he spent several weeks in jail on what he says were trumped-up charges of forging signatures for his party's registration papers. He was released after pressure from the United States, but the case, which is still to be heard by the courts, could provide yet another excuse to disqualify him.
Nobody doubts President Mubarak's ability to be reelected, but the real issue is whether his regime is serious about opening up the political system. "Mubarak would win against any candidate you could imagine," said a Western diplomat. "The question will be under what circumstances -- how much freedom he is going to allow and what sort of rules he is going to put in place for the next elections."
Egyptian democracy at present is a very thin veneer. Electoral fraud is the norm, while opposition parties operate only with the consent of the government and lack the resources to compete with Mubarak's National Democratic Party, which has monopolized the political scene for years. But now cracks are appearing.
It started with demonstrations by Kifaya ("Enough"), a loose alliance of pro-reform groups. Specifically, Kifaya has had enough of President Mubarak, but its name also echoes the frustrations that many Egyptians feel in other areas.
Last month there was a revolt by more than 1,000 judges who threatened not to help oversee this year's elections unless they were given full control over the process. "We won't allow anyone to accuse us of being part of rigging elections," the secretary-general of the Cairo judges' club told the press.
At Cairo University about 200 professors staged a demonstration in protest at academic meddling by the state. Smaller protests were held at several other universities. "Students demonstrate every year, but professors are not always demonstrating," said the Western diplomat. "People are fighting on a lot of fronts."
The press has also become more outspoken, even though editors are appointed or dismissed at the behest of the government. "You can read in Al-Ahram [the semiofficial daily] things you could not imagine reading two years ago," said Ahmed Seif al-Islam, a lawyer and supporter of Kifaya.
So far, there have been no protests on the scale seen recently in Lebanon. The only group capable of mustering large numbers on the streets is the banned Muslim Brotherhood. Significantly, it has shifted the focus of its protests from international concerns to domestic issues and is calling for wholesale reform. It claims that 10,000 people took part in demonstrations around the country on May 6. Several hundred people were arrested and one man died when security forces used tear gas.
In a speech last weekend, President Bush once again talked of spreading democracy in the Middle East and said the Egyptian presidential election "should proceed with international monitors, and with rules that allow for a real campaign." There are many in Cairo, though, probably including President Mubarak, who doubt that Bush will press the issue as hard as he did in Lebanon. Egypt is an important U.S. ally in the region, they say, and the last thing Washington wants is to enhance the power of the Muslim Brotherhood.