They have depleted all means of protesting and found themselves back with their original tools. After three years of almost daily protests, boycotting ballots, grassroots petitions and sit-ins, Egypt’s mostly young opposition have returned to their pre-2011 tactics by taking to social media platforms to express dissent.
#Elect_the_pimp and #Sinai_out_of_coverage are two originally Arabic hashtags that went viral among Egyptian Twitter users in late March.
The first, launched in response to the country’s former defence minister’s announcement of his long-awaited presidential bid, uses an extremely offensive word in Egyptian culture to describe Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. It has exploded online and is painted as graffiti on walls around Cairo.
Days into its launch, the anti-Sisi hashtag was among the world’s top trends. According to tracking website Keyhole, it reached more than 100 million impressions within days of its creation, generating tens of thousands of messages on Twitter. In the last two weeks, the tweets have slowed but the hashtag still recorded about 500 million impressions.
Founders of the hashtag say social media was the only channel they had to voice dissent. “No mainstream channel would give us the floor. They are all run by the old regime’s businessmen or government-run media,” said an administrator of one of the Facebook groups promoting the hashtag, who asked not to be identified. “They’re all against us,” said the young dissident whose Facebook page has almost 200,000 members.
Following the 2011 revolt which led to the ousting of Hosni Mubarak after days of mass protests, the same television channels now accused of ignoring young activists raced to host and portray them as heroes who saved their country from corruption and authoritarianism.
Egypt’s turmoil prolonged and power shifted from the junta to the Muslim Brotherhood following the election that saw Mohamed Morsi voted in as president. In July 2013, an army-backed coup toppled Morsi.
Following his ouster and an army-backed campaign against “terrorism”, several media channels staged smearing campaigns targeting prominent activists, campaigners said, accusing them of treason and working with foreign agents against Egypt.
This contributed to a wide youth boycott of a referendum on a military-backed constitution in January. “Facebook and Twitter are our outlets now, after all other media channels turned against all those opposing the army,” said Mayo Shadid, 28, who is among those running an offshoot Facebook page of the #Elect_the_Pimp campaign.
“Regimes collapse when they’re insulted, and this is exactly what happened with Morsi,” he said, when asked why he helped start the Twitter campaign – adding that he does not belong to the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood.
“The idol they built in two years was torn down with the first tweet,” Shadid said.
Sisi’s popularity soared after he spearheaded the unseating of Morsi. His posters drape buildings in Cairo and elsewhere, supporters have staged rallies and the media depict him as Egypt’s saviour. People accused of insulting or defaming him face prison sentences.
In response to the social media campaign against the general-turned-candidate, some in the mainstream press have called for a ban on Twitter.
“This is about character assassination,” said Khairy Ramadan, whose talk show is aired on private CBC television channel. “This was part of what was used against Morsi… They [activists] are playing the same game, but more professionally and in a filthier way.”
“The easiest thing now is for the state to shut down Twitter and YouTube,” Ramadan said, comparing it to similar moves made recently by the Turkish government.
Sisi’s supporters believe the hashtags criticising the former general are supported by the Muslim Brotherhood and have launched their own #I_Will_Elect_Sisi campaign.
Founders of the #Elect_the_Pimp campaign say they are trying to unite Morsi’s supporters with secular movements who had initially supported the military coup.
“Users of the hashtag are all from the left, as well as the April 6 movement [which played a key role in the 2009 revolution] as well as the [Muslim] Brotherhood,” said the Facebook group administrator who asked not to be named.
Another hashtag that has succeeded in drawing support from different opposition camps is the #Sinai_out_of_Coverage campaign promoted by residents of the eastern peninsula, who have been affected by rising insurgency and an army-backed “anti-terrorism” campaign.
Campaigners used Twitter to complain about a lack of services in the region, which has exacerbated following military operations. Communications networks are blocked almost daily for up to 12 hours.
“Sinai is not just outside of the coverage for mobile phones, media and services, it’s outside the coverage of the state’s attention as a whole,” read one of the campaign’s tweets.
The writer of that tweet, Ahmed Elghoul, is a co-founder of the hashtag. He said the campaign allows residents to vent their frustrations.
“Amid all the worrisome conditions and circumstances which we live in, people avoid expressing their thoughts in the streets for fear of police oppression,” he told Al Jazeera. “The hashtag encouraged them to reveal what’s inside of them.”
Protests, staged on a daily basis since the 2011 revolt, dwindled sharply after the government issued an anti-protest law in November 2013. Three prominent activists from the 2011 revolt were each sentenced to three years in prison on Monday as a result of the new law.
‘Phenomenon of trending’
But with most Egyptians not having regular access to social media and the campaigns primarily targeting middle class youth, it is unclear how far they’ll go.
Marwa Maziad, a Middle East media and politics expert, said the “return to Twitter and Facebook may be of some significance but not much”, adding it is still too early to judge.
“The primary analysis of this phenomenon is that people are excited about ‘trending’ on Twitter as an alternative to real political organisation on the ground, in which the failure is clear,” Maziad explained, attributing their failure to “active attempts by the elite to close pockets of dissent as well as structural weakness in mobilising large segments of society beyond episodic surges of protest, after which most will get ‘rebellion fatigue'”.
While the Sinai campaign hopes to bring reforms to the long-neglected peninsula through peaceful virtual protest, anti-Sisi campaigners want to use their hashtag to bring Egyptians back to the streets to oppose his presidential bid.
“The Egyptian governments, however, have been quite accustomed to withstanding storms of mobilisation, voiding them from their content by constantly fragmenting the coalitions behind any such mobilisation. But there are always surprises. We are yet to see how this particular incident unfolds,” Maziad said.