CAIRO -- Like a collection of hieroglyphs, portraits of old-time communist heroes lined the walls in a hall where left-wing Egyptian activists met one recent day. Marx wore his beard; Lenin read Pravda. On one wall, a new red banner bore an up-to-date message that not long ago authorities would not have tolerated: "Down With Tyranny in Egypt."
The activists, several of whom had spent years in jail, got down to work on strategies designed to end the 23-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak.
"I think this statement is too soft," said one. "We need to get to the point, and that is Mubarak."
"No, we should stay away from mentioning personalities," countered another.
Operating out of dingy offices in Cairo's decayed downtown of art deco palaces, activists of all stripes -- left, right and Islamic -- are testing the limits of political activity as they prepare strategies in anticipation of major reform in Egypt. The capital has become an arena of political effervescence.
Mubarak's government tolerates officially registered opposition groups, but many unofficial organizations have begun operating since a cautious liberalization of laws on association in the late 1990s.
It is far from certain that Mubarak will initiate or tolerate major reforms, but that seems to have dampened no one's enthusiasm. "Why wait?" said Kamal Khalil, a leader of the banned Revolutionary Socialist Party. "It is time for us to show we are steadfast and ready for Mubarak's downfall."
Still, fear of a crackdown is often evident when opposition groups meet. At the left-wing gathering, for instance, delegates refused to have their pictures taken.
For now, Mubarak and his large security services maintain a tight hold on power. Many political analysts think that despite fragile health, the 76-year-old president will seek a fifth term next year, through an unopposed referendum. Barring that, he would designate his son Gamal to lead.
The United States has pressed Mubarak to undertake a transition to democracy. But he has said that foreigners ought to stay out of Arab politics and that easing up could bring parties to the surface that want to convert Egypt into an Islamic republic.
Parties seeking legal status need the approval of a government-sanctioned committee headed by Safwat Sharif, who is also secretary general of Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party.
In the past 25 years, the committee has rejected 50 requests for the creation of new parties. At present, 17 have official recognition.
By all accounts, Egypt's most influential opposition group is the Muslim Brotherhood, the granddaddy of Middle Eastern Islamic political movements. It is banned from politics, but some of its loyalists are members of parliament, and others operate openly in Cairo and other cities.
A spectrum of other opposition forces resents the notion that Egypt's only choice lies between Mubarak and militant Islam. "The Islamic threat is used by the government as a boogeyman," said Abdul-Ala Maddi, director of the International Studies Center, a front for developing a new Islamic party called Wasat.