When Ahmed Abu Ismail set out to drive across town, it was midafternoon siesta time and raining hard so few people were in the streets.
A few men sitting in cafes spotted him and rose to their feet as he went by. "Abu Ismail, Abu Ismail, has come," they shouted, raising their arms skyward and waving in greeting. Shopkeepers ran out to see him, followed by their customers.
"Allah is with you, Abu Ismail," they shouted.
Within minutes, Abu Ismail's blue car was surrounded by chanting, waving, singing, applauding admirers, grabbing at him through the open windows, kissing his hands and his face, pounding on the hood and trunk, waving his picture, throwing themselves at him.
"If it's a fair election, I'll win," Abu Ismail said dryly to a visitor riding with him. "You should see what it's like when they know in advance that I'm coming."
Ahmed Abu Ismail, 62, banker, economics professor and former minister of finance, is trying to retain his seat in Egypt's parliament in elections to he held Thursday - voting depicted by president Anwar Sadat as a historic political landmark in Egypt opening a new era of peace and democracy.
Abu Ismail is a popular legislator running on a record of public service. But because he is a political independent and refused to join Sadat's National Democratic Party when it was formed last year, the party is making a major effort to defeat him. There is strong evidence that the effort includes questionable and possibly illigal tactics.
Assured of a substantial, probably overwhelming majority in the new parliament, as they had in the old, the president and his party appear to be trying for a sweep.
The election campaign has been marked by restrictions on debate, harassment of the opposition, arrests, and limitations on campaigning, prompting Egyptians and foreign observers to question Sadat's claim to have reestablished democracy and political freedom.Sadat often has said that Egypt is not ready for unrestricted Western-style democracy and that "there are limits" to what he will tolerate. Egyptians are discovering that those limits are narrow.
This is Egypt's first multi-party election since the 1952 revolution. There are 1683 candidates for 382 seats. But the National Democracy Party has the weight of Sadat's power and the government behind it, and new laws and presidential decrees have limited the ability of other candidates to challenge the ruling party.
Two parties ostensibly in the opposition, the Socialist Labour Party and the right-wing Socialist Liberals, have made a pact with Sadat's party to protect each other's most prominent figures from uncomfortable challenges.
National Democracy Party members who sought to run without party end endorsement have been expelled from the party. The leftist Popular Progressive Union has 31 candidates, but no real popular appeal, and the party is inhibited by a government announcement that its leader, Khaled Mohieddin, is under investigation on suspicion of talking to the Iraqis about opposition to Egypt's peace treaty with Israel.
Attempts by some outspoken Sadat opponents to form a new party, the National Front, foundered when the government postponed a decision on legalizing it after one of its members, leftist parliamentarian Ahmed Taha, was arrested on charges of spying for Bulgaria.
Perhaps few would go so far as the Western diplomat who called the entire election a "travesty," or as the Egyptian politician who said it is only a sham aimed at currying favor with Sadat's new American allies. But a widespread view among sophisticated Egyptians was expressed by a headline in the week's edition of Al Shaab, the newspaper of the Socialist Labour Party.
"A new Sidky Pasha in every governorate," it said.
Ismail Sidky Pasha, a prime minister in the 1930s, was famous for rigging elections and crushing his opposition.
Criticism of the peace treaty is banned. Objections to two referendums in which 99 percent of the voters endorsed Sadat's policies are not allowed. Nothing is tolerated that violates "social peace" or "socialist gains." Opposition based on religious grounds is banned. Individuals banished from political life under Gamal Abdel Nasser are still banned.
Still, there are a few key contests that Egyptians see as tests of government willingness to permit any opposition at all. One is the effort by Abu Ismail, always popular in this muddy farming town 50 miles north of Cairo and never a lightning rod of popular discontent with Sadat's policy.
His National Democratic Party opponent is Housing Minister Mustafa Hefnawy, who has not stood for election before. Cabinet ministers are not legally required to be members of parliament, but many of Sadat's ministers are running because the president is seeking popular endorsement of his government.
The government has pledged the elections will be "100 percent clean." But here there is abundant evidence of government pressure on Abu Ismail's supporters to vote for Hefnawy.
Some government workers who support Abu Ismail have been transferred out of the district.Hefnawy has not refuted charges that he promised allocations of building materials from ministry stores to those who back him. Several dozen supporters of Abu Ismail who organized a rally for him last week were arrested when police swooped down on their homes at 4 a.m.
The arrests appear to have galvanized the town. Men who were picked up in the raid rush up to visitors to give the details. When Abu Ismail's car passed through the mob, frenzied voices were heard shouting "Sadat, this is the era of freedom," and "Samannud cannot be bought."