By Stephen Kalin and Shadia Nasralla
CAIRO, May 26 (Reuters) - Three years have passed since a popular uprising deposed veteran autocrat Hosni Mubarak, a former air force commander. But many Egyptians seemed in no hurry for democracy free of military influence when they voted on Monday.
Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the general who ousted Egypt's first freely elected leader last July, was expected to win easily, underscoring the bottom line: stability over freedoms.
Many Egyptians regard Sisi as a strong figure who can end the political upheaval and street violence that has dogged Egypt since Mubarak's fall after three decades of one-party rule.
"With Sisi, the country will stabilize. Democracy is a nice thing. We go there step by step, we move towards it step by step," said Aziza Mohamed, 62.
She waved an Egyptian flag as she stepped out of a voting booth in Suez, a hotbed of anti-Mubarak activity during the revolt but which now longs for calm like so many other towns and cities. "It will come later, not yet. We have hope."
Sisi ousted Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood last July after mass protests against his rule.
What followed was one of the fiercest crackdowns against the group: security forces killed hundreds in the streets and arrested thousands of others, drawing widespread condemnation from human rights groups.
Now many Egyptians just crave the quiet life.
This week's election is the seventh vote or referendum since the 2011 revolt which raised hopes for democracy, now seen by some as having failed.
"Elections are a step, not the goal. Egypt is still learning," said Ahmed Abdellah, 52, a medical doctor at Cairo University. "Every time there will be mistakes but each time there will be fewer until we reach the ideal."
Teacher Tahani Mahmoud, 45, said the 2012 elections which brought Mursi to office dashed her hopes for stability.
"I agree with Sisi that Egypt is not yet ready for democracy," she said. "There is a lot of ignorance and illiteracy. A lot of people don't know what democracy is. They use their freedom in a bad way."
Sisi's critics fear he will rule Egypt as like the former military men did. It's not just Islamists that were rounded up under his watch. Secular activists, who supported the army's removal of the Brotherhood, have also been jailed.
But an opinion poll by the Washington-based Pew Research Center suggested that enthusiasm for democracy among Egyptians is slipping, and that stability and a strong leader are becoming greater priorities. It found that 54 percent of Egyptians prioritised stability above democracy.
Sisi voters confirmed the survey's results on election day.
Badawi Abou Abdou, 47, said he voted for Mursi in 2012 but he didn't keep his promises. Critics accused Mursi of usurping power, imposing the Brotherhood's view of democracy and mismanaging the economy.
"I was the happiest when Sisi got rid of him," Abdou said, sitting on a wooden bench outside a polling station in Suez.
"Sisi is a democratic man. The army and democracy go hand in hand." (Reporting by Stephen Kalin in Cairo and Shadia Nasralla in Suez; Writing by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Michael Georgy and Giles Elgood)