While the West praises Egypt for allowing some challenges to President Hosni Mubarak in September's poll, human rights groups warn of what they say is state-sponsored brutality against opposition demonstrators.
The BBC's Hugh Sykes spoke to some members of the Egyptian opposition in Cairo and London.
In a cafe in the smart London district of Chelsea, a man with a rugged face and a warm smile is drinking coffee and describing torture.
Professor Saad Eddin Ibrahim spent a year-and-a-half in an Egyptian jail, accused of using donations from Europe to help fund election monitoring in 2000.
Pro-government and opposition backers have confronted each other
The charges were eventually thrown out on appeal, after three trials.
In the meantime, Mr Ibrahim endured 45 days of solitary confinement and sleep deprivation.
He said the lights were never turned off, that he was not allowed to lie down and that loudspeakers near his cell relayed the sounds of men being tortured - screaming and begging for mercy.
This is the Egypt whose tentative steps towards democratic presidential elections were described last month by US First Lady Laura Bush as "bold and wise".
Rival candidates will be permitted for the presidential election in September. But Mr Ibrahim says the conditions are so stringent that the only candidates will either be members of Mr Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP), or supporters of other recognised parties.
And the conditions for becoming a recognised party are also hard to meet.
The al-Ghad party plans to contest the election.
Al-Ghad, which means "Tomorrow", is led by Ayman Nour, a 40-year-old lawyer.
Ayman Nour says he is already experiencing dirty tricks
In Cairo, he told me he is already encountering dirty tricks - intimidation by the security police, heavy restrictions on his freedom to campaign and primitive propaganda by the NDP, claiming that God is against him.
How strange, I suggested to Mr Ibrahim, that this behaviour by the Egyptian regime is tolerated by the US, which claims to be encouraging decency and democracy in the Middle East.
The UK too, he chides me. He says many Western governments, including France, Germany and Japan, have been very good to Mr Mubarak - for the sake of stability in the region and to "keep down the Islamists".
He says those justifications do not bear examination. In particular, he says, the banning of organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood is likely to produce exactly the effect Washington wants to avoid - an increase in fanaticism acting under the banner of Islam.
President Mubarak's supporters say the Muslim Brotherhood can never be allowed to stand for election in Egypt because the constitution forbids parties based on religion.
Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Essam el-Erian believes that position is untenable.
Reports say women have been singled out by loyalist attackers
"The president cannot exclude us," he told me.
"We are citizens, we are supported by a very big sector of the population."
Mr Essam regards the right to expression and the right to organise as "the main pillars of democracy". If the Muslim Brotherhood are denied those rights, the election will not be valid, he says.
He also suspects that the entire so-called democratisation of the presidential election is cosmetic - "for decoration only, to steam out the pressure from outside."
But Mr Ibrahim believes US President George Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are at last beginning to understand the long-term effects of supporting brutal dictatorships in the Middle East.
He says it backfires in the long term, and feeds extremism. The two masterminds of the 11 September 2001 attacks, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, were from the two main US allies in the region, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.