RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. The presidential campaign in Egypt has kicked off for this month's election. Last night, a few thousand people gathered in Cairo to show their support for Egypt's ex-military chief, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)
MARTIN: Sisi is one of only two candidates in the running. Analysts say he will be the country's next president, and they ask if this election is a step toward democracy or a path back to authoritarian rule.
NPR's Leila Fadel joins us now to talk about the election. Hi, Leila.
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: You were at a rally last night for Sisi. Can you tell us a little bit about it? What did you see? What was the tone like?
FADEL: Well, it was held in an area that was used actually by the former ruling party under Hosni Mubarak, which is kind of ironic. There were a few thousand people, and it was very celebratory - a lot smaller than we expected. Sisi didn't come, but it was very much a tone of, this will be our next president, we need a president who is a military man, who is tough, who is strong, who can rein Egypt in.
MARTIN: As you mention, Egyptians expect him to win this vote. Why is this such a presumed victory? Why is this a done deal?
FADEL: Well, right now in Egypt, there's very little space for opposition. As we've seen, there is a wide crackdown on dissenting voices, Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood, but also secular young activists who've spoken up against practices of the state so far.
And this is a man who has the backing of state institutions, state television, private channels. And on top of that, the military is a very popular institution. And after three years of unrest, people are saying, well, maybe let's go back to something we know - the military - rather than this unstable mess that we've been living through in three and a half years.
MARTIN: Who's he running against? Clearly, not a very strong candidate.
FADEL: He's running against a man named Hamdeen Sabahi, a leftist, a Nasserist. He was a major contender in the last election in 2012, which the Muslim Brotherhood member Mohamed Morsi won and then was ousted. And he's the only person who stepped up to the plate to run against Sisi, and he's actually facing some harassment. He's had issues with campaigning already, having some - a few people detained and harassed by Sisi supporters. But he's the only one really who is willing to run against Sisi.
MARTIN: Are people pleased with their choice then?
FADEL: Well, overall when you talk to Egyptians, most people say, yeah, we want this guy. We want a military man. We want stability. They don't talk as much about democracy or human rights. They talk about stability. They don't want bombings. And then there's also a - almost - you know, at the rally last night, we saw so many buses of people being bussed in to the rally. It's almost like this is the only choice, whether you like it or not. And many people voluntarily like it. But if they don't, maybe feel they have to.
MARTIN: So it's been three years since the Arab Spring swept through Egypt. There's been a democratic election and a coup overthrowing that vote since then. How are Egyptians feeling going into this vote?
FADEL: I think in this election, it's a lot more predictable. It feels a lot more like elections pre the uprising against Hosni Mubarak three and a half years ago. People kind of know what's going to happen, and most will support the candidate that the state supports or the state institutions support.
But it comes at a time where there is a wide crackdown. An estimated 23,000 people have been put in jail - many of those people arrested under a Draconian protest law that basically says you can't protest unless we authorize you to protest. You can't be more than nine people in a public space. And that's a law that's been defended by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. He has said nobody can really touch the army - let's put that on the side - and this protest law is necessary to stabilize Egypt so tourists will come. And democracy, in the Western-style democracy, he says, will take decades. So it's not necessarily an election that people think, wow, this is going to lead to true democracy and Egypt blossoming.
MARTIN: NPR's Leila Fadel, joining us from Cairo. Thanks so much, Leila.
FADEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.