When an uprising ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Egyptians in the impoverished Cairo neighborhood of Imbaba rejoiced.
The revolt raised hopes that a democratic government would emerge after thirty years of dictatorship, fix the potholed, garbage-strewn streets and provide better education and health care.
Jubilation has given way to political apathy in many parts of Egypt in the turbulent years since the Arab Spring swept the country.
The mood in the sprawling slum of Imbaba – home to more than one million people – is especially telling because it was an Islamist militant stronghold opposed to former air force commander Mubarak in the 1990s that now seems happy at the prospect of having a military man in power again.
Residents of Imbaba, where mangy dogs roam freely and people pick through piles of fetid garbage, say they want the army chief who toppled the country’s first democratically elected president to run for president, even if it means a return to the days of military officers ruling the country.
Many of those who say they will vote “yes” in the January 14-15 constitutional referendum seem more interested in endorsing General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, than supporting a document they know little about.
Oum Sayed, who lives in the City of Hope neighborhood of congested Imbaba, points to half-built buildings with laundry hanging on them and refers to the government-run school her children attend as “garbage”.
Her husband has no steady income and the family rarely eats meat. For her, the answer is the familiar – a military man in charge.
“We’ll vote yes on Tuesday,” she said. “We love Sisi,” her friend said.
On Saturday, Sisi, who ran military intelligence under Mubarak, gave the strongest signal yet that he would contest presidential elections due later this year.
Sisi has not offered any clues on how he would strengthen the economy, which has suffered since he deposed president Mohamed Morsi in July and then mounted a severe crackdown on his Muslim Brotherhood.
Nor has he spoken publicly about how he would ease poverty or improve the dilapidated infrastructure in places like Imbaba, which is right next to one of Egypt’s wealthiest districts, Zamalek – a reminder of long-standing inequality.
While talking about the need for social justice, the interim government his army backs has not come up with solutions either, relying on money from Gulf Arab states to keep the country’s finances afloat.
But after three years of political upheaval since Mubarak’s fall, Imbaba residents interviewed by Reuters say they will settle for Sisi nevertheless. He is seen as a kind of strongman who can bring calm to the Arab world’s most populous country.
Such views would have been unthinkable in the past, when Egypt’s generals were busy running a vast business empire as poverty deepened along the alleyways of Imbaba.
In the 1990s, Muslim militants seeking to overthrow Mubarak’s government gained widespread popularity in Imbaba by providing basic services the government had not, essentially establishing a state within a state.
Young men who were too poor to get married would turn to militants for financial support and apartments. Extremist clerics drew huge crowds with anti-government sermons.
Mubarak’s security forces eventually crushed the Islamic insurgency, and life returned to normal in Imbaba – neglect by the government and little hope.
With the euphoria of Mubarak’s fall long subsided, residents are back to lowering their expectations.
Khaled Dawoud, a well-known liberal activist who supported the army’s ouster of Morsi but has since condemned the crackdown on his Brotherhood, said that the failure of the revolution to deliver tangible changes has led Egyptians to embrace “a return to the old system”.
“That’s why they’re back to this point,” he said. “People are ready to accept anything for the return of a minimum level of security and improvement of the economy.”
The violence and uncertainty that followed Morsi’s ouster last summer have forced Imbaba residents let go of their longing for a full-blown democracy.
Security forces have killed hundreds of Islamists, while militants have stepped up deadly attacks on the army and police since Morsi’s ouster.
While few in Imbaba complain about the state’s crackdown on the Brotherhood, some do see it as a sign of what is to come.
“There’s no hope for democracy,” said Sayed Hassan, a 35-year-old researcher at an administrative court in Cairo who said it took him eleven years to find a job despite his university degree. “The military won’t allow it.”
While he discussed the history of dictatorship in Egypt, passersby stopped to make clear that the neighborhood was voting yes for the constitution.
Hassan shook his head in doubt as 21-year-old Abdullah Hassan said that he was confident that Sisi would bring democratic rule, and if he does not “we’ll get rid of him, like we did Mubarak and Morsi!”.
Political leaders have described the referendum as a milestone on the path to stability and democratic elections in Egypt, which has a peace treaty with Israel and controls the strategic Suez Canal.
But in Imbaba, residents are pinning their hopes on one man as they wake up every day with the same problems that other military men never tackled.
Ibrahim Abdel Hamid, who owns a shop selling toilets, said most Egyptians do not have the time or energy to read the new constitution, which promises to complete a modern democratic state with a civil government.
“They go to bed thinking about tomorrow and how they’ll feed their family,” he said.