DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And so as Leila just told us, Egyptians appear ready to elect a military man - which in a way seems amazing considering the images we remember from three years ago. At that point, a military dictator, Hosni Mubarak, was removed from power. At that time, it was NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in Cairo. She was witnessing all of the celebration.
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LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: There are tooting horns and people running and screaming in the streets - just an absolutely mad air of celebration. Everyone's trying to get on their cell phone, taking pictures - they want to commemorate the moment. Even the translator, we called him to try and get help and he was like, uh-uh, I am with my friends tonight celebrating. This is a moment I am never going to forget.
GREENE: But it's worth remembering Egyptians were angry at Mubarak, not at the military itself, and that's important to understand. According to Ashraf Khalil, he's the author of "Liberation Square: Inside The Egyptian Revolution And The Rebirth Of A Nation." And he says, seeing Egyptians turn now to Sissi, who is Mubarak's head of military intelligence, doesn't surprise him.
ASHRAF KHALIL: Egyptians do kind of love a man in uniform. I mean, the Army has special status. Under Mubarak - and this was something that revealed itself during the revolution - the police were hated. The police were the bad guys. The Army was trusted.
GREENE: But Khalil worries about what this moment in Egypt means. After Mubarak came a democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, from the Muslim Brotherhood. The military ousted him in a coup that was backed by the people, and now the former military chief, Sissi, is poised to win a new election.
KHALIL: In many ways, what's happening now - the ousting of Morsi, the ascension of Sissi, is almost an acknowledgment on the part of many Egyptians that the country wasn't ready for democracy - and that's really depressing.
GREENE: What depresses you about that?
KHALIL: Because personally as a journalist and as a dual citizen - Egyptian - I was there on and off since 1997. I witnessed the late-stage Mubarak years where really this rot and self-loathing crept into the Egyptian psyche. Like everyone knew the place had gone rotten, and seeing them break off these shackles during the revolution was absolutely amazing. I didn't think they had it in them, and I say that as a dual citizen.
And seeing it all kind of go down this path, I was disappointed with the way the Brotherhood acted after the revolution. I was disappointed in the way Morsi acted in power, and I was disappointed at how fast everyone rushed back into the arms of the military after one admittedly bad year under Morsi. Like, it really has been kind of this series of worst-case scenarios.
GREENE: Now after Mubarak was removed, Egypt appeared on a path towards democracy, but today there's a looming question - can democracy exist in a place where the political opposition has been the victim of a brutal crackdown? The military has targeted the Muslim Brotherhood, including on a bloody day last August when the group held a series of protests. At the time, we reached Monal al-Qazzaz, a spokesperson for the Brotherhood.
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MONAL AL-QAZZAZ: We want to save our ballots from their bullets. They want to kill our democratic process. They want to kill our democratic dreams. And the only way out for us is to empower a democratic institution. But the power of the tanks and the power of the bullets is killing us.
GREENE: That crackdown on the Brotherhood has continued leading up to today's election. How much outrages is there with that in Egypt?
KHALIL: Very little. It's a really spooky time in Egypt right now in a sense that there's things happening that I haven't seen before under Mubarak. And that - I'm used to there being no real sympathy, but there's real hostility towards anyone engaged in anything that might be regarded as troublemaking. And that includes opposition politicians, that includes anyone trying to hold a protest, that includes journalists, certainly, all NGOs.
There's this feeling that now's not the time to rock the boat. Now, we need stability. Now, we need security.
GREENE: That desperate desire for security is something we asked Lina Attalah about. She's editor of an independent online newspaper in Cairo called Mada Masr. She's been covering the run-up to the election and she says recent terrorist attacks have people frightened.
LINA ATTALAH: It's the kind of violence that hits near schools or churches or places that just regular people frequent. Now, it's important not to exaggerate these things. There has been violence, there has been sporadic acts of terrorism pretty much everywhere in Egypt, but also, it's not Baghdad. It's not the kind of situation where you have a lot of fatalities.
However, the pro-military media institutions managed to create a huge scare out of these sporadic events and it translated into people feeling that they are quite unsafe with the current political void that Egypt is witnessing.
GREENE: It is not necessarily that people tie the Brotherhood to those incidents, many just watched Morsi in power and felt they could never trust the Brotherhood to keep the country safe. Lina Attalah says many Egyptians only trust the military to do that, but she says things could change.
ATTALAH: I think the political process in Egypt past the 2011 revolution is constantly dynamic. And even though there is a temporary return to the state by a lot of the people as shown in the support that Sissi is receiving in these elections, this has to be understood as a very strong reaction to what has been popularly perceived as a very bad ruling experience by the Muslim Brotherhood and a lack of any other alternatives. By no means this should be described as Egyptians liking dictators or military rulers.
GREENE: But Ashraf Khalil seems to have a dimmer view. I asked him what he's learned from the Brotherhood's time in power and from the crackdown on them that followed.
KHALIL: The lesson is don't alienate your potential allies. You know, I think the Brotherhood practiced bad politics. I think Arabs might be facing a steep learning curve when it comes to building political consensus. It's not something that the last 50 years have trained them for - and I say that as an Arab before anybody gets mad at me.
GREENE: Ashraf, you are Egyptian-American. You grew up here, you have dual citizenship. You've been living in Egypt through these times, but you've decided at this moment that you want to leave and come back to the United States. I wonder if you can tell me about that decision. Why now?
KHALIL: Part of it feels like we've come to the end of a chapter. Watching the revolution, the revolution was an amazing thing. And I don't say this as an indictment of Sissi or the current government - I mean, it looks like he's got the votes and if you've got the votes, you've got the votes. I believe in that, but this does feel like the revolution has failed. Beyond that, the last year or so I've experienced being afraid in Egypt. So I'm not eager to leave Egypt, but I'm willing, yeah, for the first time in a long time.
GREENE: The voting in Egypt will continue into tomorrow. And we'll have more from NPR's Cairo correspondent, Leila Fadel on tomorrow's program.
GREENE: You are listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.