Hashtags reflect widening gap between regime, citizens in Egypt

Sisi’s rather emotional public reaction gave tweeters food for criticism because they know the president follows social media trends.
Sunday 05/08/2018
Shaping politics. A woman walks past an artwork at Twitter’s office space in Santa Monica. (AFP)
Shaping politics. A woman walks past an artwork at Twitter’s office space in Santa Monica. (AFP)

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi addressed a youth conference in late July at Cairo University and said something that set social media platforms buzzing. For some, the incident was another sign of the widening gap between the regime and Egyptian citizens.

At one point, Sisi stopped reading his prepared text and addressed the audience in Egyptian vernacular, expressing deep sadness to read on the internet calls for his ouster because he approved the government’s austerity measures.

He was referring to a hashtag that went viral in Egypt called in Arabic “#irhal_ya_Sisi” (roughly “#Sisi_out”). The president said: “I’m trying to extricate Egypt from poverty and in the end they spring up on me the hashtag #Sisi_out. Should I be offended or not?”

The president admitting there was a growing anger among Egyptians was surprising but not as surprising as the discovery of the power — so much so that Sisi felt compelled to comment on it — of a political hashtag in Egypt.

Just a few hours after the conference, #Sisi-out was back in force. Social media users continued to criticise Sisi despite his displeasure.

A counter campaign was quickly started by Sisi’s supporters. The hashtag #Sisi_is_my_president picked up momentum but did not overtake the popularity of the first hashtag. The #Sisi_out hashtag reached peaks of popularity after the government decided on hikes in gas prices.

Twitter users sought to exert pressure on the president to make him recant his economic policies. Some users vowed to make the #Sisi_out hashtag one of the biggest trends on Twitter.

Faten Ahmed tweeted: “Egyptians got angry when you hiked prices. What have you done to make up with them.” Tweets of that nature revealed the enormous gap between Sisi’s vision of economic reforms and the Egyptians’ refusal of the reforms.

The Egyptian government is to blame for the deterioration in the regime’s relationship with the people. It was obvious on social media that the government no longer enjoys people’s trust because it avoids transparency in decisions taken and fails to balance price hikes with alleviating measures.

Many Egyptians, particularly young Egyptians, cannot find anything to offset the increasingly complex pressures of daily life. The political situation in the country is more and more stifling with personal freedoms regressing practically every day. The government’s reform plans have yet to affect people’s lives positively and the general population feels unable to express itself through the usual channels.

This is where social media come into play as the primary means of popular protest. The #Sisi_out hashtag, for example, has hit the 3 million followers mark.

Sisi’s rather emotional public reaction gave tweeters food for criticism because they know the president follows social media trends. Egyptian officials know the internet is not for just finding information or plain social interaction but has become a complex tool and a serious mirror of the popularity of governments and leaders.

This is why reactions and trends on the internet must be monitored and analysed so authorities can spot unpopular decisions and rectify them.

Said Sadek, a professor of political sociology at the American University in Cairo, said Sisi’s conferences with young people represent excellent opportunities for constructive dialogue but will remain ineffective unless they attract participants from different backgrounds and orientations — the pros and cons of sorts.

Sadek explained that social platforms have become the preferred means of expression of the opposition in Egypt because people have lost faith in achieving change in the country through protests and demonstrations. People can easily see that the revolutions of January 2011 and of June 2013 had negatively affected their political and economic conditions. So social media platforms gained tremendously in affecting power and must be taken seriously.

It was social media activism by young people in the 2011 and 2013 revolutions that precipitated the downfall of Hosni Mubarak and of Muhammad Morsi. That makes the current regime wary of internet activism and will try to constrain it.

Sadek pointed out that a large section of the Egyptian population is unhappy with conditions in the country. They see a big and complex problem. They can’t identify a suitable alternative for the current regime.

Driving out the Sisi regime will not solve the economic crisis. So, in the absence of the usual legitimate channels of communication with the government through political parties and traditional mass media, people resorted to social media platforms to express anger and frustration and make their voices heard.