Egyptians are preparing to vote in legislative elections that start on Wednesday, two months after President Hosni Mubarak swept to a fifth six-year mandate with 88.6% of the vote.
The three-phase election is to begin with eight governorates, including Cairo, and end on 7 December.
"One should not expect major political changes," political analyst Mustafa Kamel al-Sayyed said, ruling out a real contest between the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and the opposition.
With 222 constituencies and 5310 candidates nationwide, talk of reform and democracy was relegated to a handful of major rallies while campaigns focused on the voters' daily needs, such as housing and sanitation.
Al-Sayyed said that key indicators to watch would be the results of the NDP - which controls 404 of parliament's 454 seats - and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Christians are as poorly represented in the elections as they were in the past, but their voices were heard more forcefully after violent protests by Muslims outside an Alexandria church that exacerbated the religious divide.
Protesters and police clashed at
the Saint Girgis church in October
There are only 23 women in the running for a seat in the People's Assembly, representing 0.4% of all candidates.
Transparent ballot boxes
The main novelties will be the use of transparent ballot boxes and the authorisation granted to civil organisations wishing to monitor the voting process, which had been marred by allegations of fraud in 2000 and previous elections.
The conditions under which monitors will be allowed to operate remain fuzzy, and observers have warned that rigging is not likely to be avoided.
The 2000 election confirmed the Egyptian parliament as a monolithic and largely toothless institution where the opposition is little more than decorative.
But initial returns for the elections saw the ruling party muster less than 40% of the vote, before 253 NDP renegades who ran as independents were brought back into the fold.
Students hold posters of Mubarak
during presidential polls (file)
The same scenario could unfold in the coming weeks as the NDP's 444 official candidates face off against about 3000 "independents", some of whom are card-holding ruling party members who did not make the cut.
"The NDP still isn't a real party," al-Sayyed said. Many observers think the NDP is using the elections more as a catalyst for its own internal change than an opportunity for democratic change.
Among the independents, about 150 are Muslim Brothers who command wide grassroots support through a charity network and have promised to raise their seat tally from 15 to about 50.
Running openly under its name for the first time, the movement founded by Hassan al-Banna in 1928 is demanding to be recognised officially as a registered party but its campaign, Islam is the Solution, is viewed as unacceptable to the government.
The other opposition parties remain divided.
"Our internal differences are deeper than those between the opposition and the NDP," said Nasserist boss Diaeddin Dawoud, member of the United National Front for Change, which includes the Kefaya movement and Marxist Tagammu.
Kefaya holds its first conference
in September (file photo)
Ayman Nour was one of the heroes of the presidential election, where he clinched the runner-up spot, but he has faced a number of legal challenges, and his al-Ghad party has been undermined by dissent.
A controversial constitutional amendment introduced by Mubarak this year states that a party will need to control at least 5% of seats in parliament to field a candidate in the 2011 presidential election.