World Bulletin / News Desk
Supporters and opponents of former Egyptian army chief Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi engaged in a social-media showdown following the latter's announcement earlier this week that he planned to run for president.
After an online campaign by his opponents responded to his presidential bid with biting sarcasm, his supporters rolled up their sleeves to defend their champion.
On Wednesday evening, al-Sisi resigned from his post as defense minister and army chief to declare his intention to run in Egypt's upcoming presidential elections.
Shortly after the announcement, the strongman's opponents voiced their protest en masse via Facebook and Twitter using a sarcastic hashtag in Arabic that translates roughly to "Vote for the pimp."
The expletive used in the hashtag (pronounced "Aars" in Arabic) is highly offensive in Egyptian slang. It is used in a variety of contexts, but usually denotes "pimp" or "hypocrite" in political references.
The hashtag also spread onto the streets. Photos circulated on social media, including the campaign's Facebook page, of graffiti sprayed on walls in Cairo and other provinces featuring al-Sisi's face tagged with the bellicose hashtag.
"This will go down in history as the first campaign for a presidential hopeful launched by his opponents," the administrator of the campaign's Facebook page told Anadolu Agency.
"The media is filled with fabrications and lies," the 29-year-old activist, speaking on condition of anonymity, said.
Within the past 48 hours, the hashtag was used some 4.5 million times by Facebook and Twitter users, according to an AA survey using hashtag tracking website Keyhole.
Almost one quarter (23 percent) of the anti-Sisi hashtag users were from outside Egypt, according to data provided by Keyhole.
"The idea was to challenge al-Sisi's portrayal [by pro-army media and supporters] as a demigod," said the page administrator, who insisted that he opposes the involvement of the army in politics.
By Friday evening, the hashtag ranked first in trending hashtags in Egypt, according to the Trendsmap website, which monitors global hashtag usage.
Indignant supporters of the former army chief, for their part, launched a counter-hashtag – translating to #IWillVoteForSisi – to rebut the offensive campaign.
The pro-Sisi hashtag gained momentum on Thursday night, and had been used 100,000 times as of Friday afternoon, according to Keyhole's statistics.
He asserted that he did not belong to the Muslim Brotherhood, the group from which ousted president Mohamed Morsi hails, as claimed by some al-Sisi supporters.
While he is hailed as a national hero by his supporters, critics – especially those from Egypt's embattled Islamist camp – hold al-Sisi responsible for a deadly crackdown which has left hundreds dead and thousands detained since Morsi's ouster.
Social media has gone back to being the only available outlet for criticizing the government following the closure of most mainstream media to dissenters and a zero-tolerance by security forces for anti-government rallies since al-Sisi announced Morsi's ouster last year.
The main body of opposition to al-Sisi is largely made up of disgruntled youth, who see that a military man as president would revert the 2011 uprising that led to the ouster of longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak – himself a former air force commander under whose regime al-Sisi served as head of military intelligence.
Al-Sisi's move to run for president surprised no one. The former defense minister – widely seen as the chief architect of Morsi's ouster – hinted at his intention in a number of public appearances and interviews over the past weeks, saying he was responding to "popular demands."
Although he is now idolized by supporters, al-Sisi had kept a low public profile until last July, when he announced the ouster of Morsi – Egypt's first freely elected leader, who had himself promoted al-Sisi from military intelligence chief to defense minister in August 2012.
Since Morsi's removal from office on the back of massive demonstrations against his presidency, al-Sisi has ridden a wave of popularity, which has been heavily promoted by the pro-army media and bolstered further by support from many politicians and public figures.
This has led observers to predict that the top general would dominate at the polls – dates for which have yet to be announced.
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