CAIRO -- From up close, democracy appeared to have taken root this week in the square outside Egypt's Journalists Union. Members of the Kifaya democracy movement fearlessly challenged President Hosni Mubarak's 24-year rule ahead of the country's first contested presidential election today, calling him a dictator with no real interest in relinquishing his smothering grip on power.
But from a few steps away, it was clear why Egypt's small group of dissenters says the political opening they have fought for over the last year is a tenuous victory, granted solely at the mercy of Mubarak and subject to be closed at any moment.
Surrounding the small group of about 100 protesters, at least 2,000 riot police stood in all-black uniforms and helmets, arms linked, batons and canes at the ready, framing the civilians as if they were a band of actors lost in the middle of a military parade. Security agents recorded the names of protesters who chanted slogans or criticized the regime to foreign reporters.
This scene is typical of the ambiguous political spring sweeping Egypt, and confrontations like it have prompted reform groups to wonder whether Mubarak will further open the gates of democracy after his presumed victory today, or whether he'll slam them shut.
''I expect a lot of consequences for being here. Once the police take down your name, you have to worry about your future," said Mohammed Khalid, 21, an engineering student who has joined five Kifaya rallies in the last two months, after he contemplated footage of Egyptian police beating protesters with truncheons at a similar peaceful demonstration in May.
The real measure of growing freedom, say the Egyptians who have pushed the envelope of political free expression over the last year, will come during November's parliamentary elections and the following months, when they can assess the government's tolerance for critical voices once the world's spotlight has moved elsewhere.
''The monitoring, following, hassling is always there. We just try not to pay attention," said Mohammed Habib, the number-two official in the banned Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist movement that is Egypt's most organized and persistent opposition force.
Political reformers and hard-core Islamists, from opposite ends of the reform movement, have spoken their mind in public with new candor, openly demanding that the government relinquish its monopoly on power.
Nongovernmental organizations have sprung up in defiance of the government, promising to document the expected election fraud and push for further substantial political reform, even though the presidential election commission has dismissed a court ruling ordering him to let independent monitors into poll sites.
Egypt's judges, chafing under a system in which nearly all power is concentrated under the president, shocked the political establishment last weekend when they said they might declare today's elections not free and fair if they aren't allowed enough power to properly supervise the balloting.
But the same political spring has also opened the curtains on the vast machinery of Mubarak's police state, with thousands of riot police, security agents, and plainclothes officers threatening dissenters, taking names and photographs of protesters, and monitoring conversations in teahouses and markets to hear what Egyptians say about their president.
''Maybe after the president wins elections, as we're sure he will, the freedoms that we've seen for the Brotherhood over the last year will be taken away," said Habib, who has spent a total of more than six years in prison while Mubarak has ruled Egypt.
At a rally in Alexandria, Mubarak declared to thousands of supporters: ''We are stepping on the road to democracy. The door has been opened for free opinions."
But members of his National Democratic Party -- thickly interspersed with armed plainclothes police -- reverted to the old slogans of the cult of personality built around Mubarak and employed by many other long-serving Arab leaders. One shouted: ''With our blood, with our souls, we sacrifice ourselves for you, Mubarak!"
On stage at Mubarak's closing rally in Cairo on Sunday was his son Gamal, 42, believed by many to the presumed heir to a rule dominated by one party with increasingly dynastic tones. But his American-educated campaign adviser, Mohammed Kamal insists that multicandidate elections are but a first step on a long process of liberalization for Egypt.
''The president realizes that the whole world has changed," Kamal said. ''He's thinking about his record in the history books. I think he believes if there's going to be a model for democracy in the Arab world, it's got to be Egypt."
That model, as it's playing out in the markets, mosques, and teahouses of Cairo, looks heavily fettered.
''The good thing about this election is that even though Mubarak will win, some people will vote against him," said Mahmoud, 27, a computer engineer who works for the government, at a small coffee shop behind the Azhar Mosque.
''The policeman sitting next to you is very interested in your conversation," the cafe owner announced loudly, drawing the engineer's attention to a man in a polo shirt sitting next to him, and ending the conversation.
''It's the same old Pharaonic system," said Hany Enan, a doctor and businessman who is one of Kifaya's founders. His group will never galvanize a mass popular uprising, he said, but has accomplished its nearly revolutionary aim of showing the Egyptian public that citizens can speak out, openly and critically.
Some key institutions in addition to the judiciary have shown evidence of democratic change, as well. State-owned media outlets have given over airtime and news space to coverage of opposition candidates. While fawning coverage of Mubarak dominated most of the media, it was jolting for Egyptians to see opposition ads describing Mubarak's rule as ''suffocating" and touting the strengths of his competitors.
The few stalwart institutions and human rights groups that have consistently decried government polices to suppress dissent suddenly find themselves joined by dozens of new groups.
One, founded by a dozen self-described ''upper-middle class professionals" three months ago, has already documented electoral fraud on its website, www.shayfeen.com, which in Arabic means ''we are watching you."
''The people have pushed up the ceiling of fear," said Ghada Shahbender, one of the group's founders.