El Sisi rides a bicycle, kicks off social media storm

The photos and video created a huge buzz across social media networks, possibly a marker of a new era for Egypt.

CAIRO // For Egyptians used to his aviator shades and military uniform, the images of their likely next president sitting astride a bicycle in a blue track suit appeared to show his softer side.
Two weeks after he resigned as defence minister, the pictures showed Abdel Fattah El Sisi at ease on the campaign trail, chatting with a group of women on a Cairo street, while his bodyguards, also on bikes, kept a close watch in the background.
For many it was a refreshing change to see the retired field marshal in more relaxed surroundings engaging with the electorate.
But the photos and brief video, which created a huge buzz on social media networks, may not just be a signal of Mr El Sisi adopting a new image as he enters civilian life. They could also be marking a new era for Egypt.
Mr El Sisi, 59, is changing his persona to suit the job he hopes to secure when people vote next month to elect Egypt's seventh president since the monarchy was overthrown in the 1950s.
The retired field marshal, who led the military ousting of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi last July, has yet to formally submit documents to the election commission, but his campaign is already dominating front pages, TV talk shows and living-room conversation.
The photos and the video of him cycling have kicked off a storm of discussion on Twitter and Facebook, along with a heated debate between supporters and detractors on the value of his Peugeot bicycle, with some saying it costs as much as Dh20,400 while others insist it costs as little as Dh2,000.
At the heart of the debate is the question of whether Mr El Sisi's attempt to appear to be a regular candidate - as opposed to Egypt's most powerful man since Mr Morsi's removal - has backfired, with him perceived to be touring the streets of a quiet eastern Cairo suburb on a bicycle that only a few Egyptians can afford.
That he is no longer the nation's top soldier has opened the way for criticism, including some in the mostly pro-military state media. What he has said about his economic policies - such as his call for Egyptians to tighten the belt and hints he may cut back state subsidies - have sparked a great deal of backlash.
The manner in which he announced his candidacy - in uniform and in front of a backdrop of lush green vegetation - was ridiculed on social media, with many likening the background to those used by stores selling fresh juice.
Mr El Sisi's supporters in the media have sought to lower Egyptians' expectations, with many saying the man has no "magic wand" to solve the country's problems overnight.
He is almost assured of victory in the May 26-27 election. He was seen by many as the country's saviour in July after removing Mr Morsi, who had millions protest against his presidency that was racked by a failing economy and accusations of appointing only Islamists to positions of power.
That popularity, combined with a nationalist fervour sweeping the country, is leading some in Egypt to believe the vote is a little more than just a formality.
The only other serious contender is the leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi who finished a strong third in the last presidential election in 2012. Murtadah Mansour, the newly elected chairman of Cairo's Zamalek Sporting Club, one of Egypt's best known football teams, has also announced he would run.
But the controversial and often ill-tempered Mr Mansour is not likely to leave a mark on the race beside, some say, entertainment value.
Adly Mansour, the interim president, has been adamant that his administration will remain neutral, not throwing its weight behind any candidate, including Mr El Sisi, and that it wants to see a vote that is fair and transparent.
Mr Sabahi's campaign has complained of intimidation of its workers and said that they are working under difficult conditions, with the majority of the media criticising him for running at a time when the country needed to rally around one national figure.
Such criticism is mostly a reflection of the personality cult that has been built around Mr El Sisi, who is now seen by many as the only person capable of solving the nation's seemingly endless woes - including a deteriorating security situation.
Songs have been composed in honour of the former field marshal, including some with mixed Arabic and English lyrics, his photo graces the front pages of newspapers, posters bearing his image adorn streets, bridges and even some bakeries have his image on cookies.
The photos of Mr El Sisi on a bicycle harken back to images of former leaders.
Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt's nationalist leader of the 1950s and 1960s, was often filmed and photographed playing tennis or football with his children.
Anwar Sadat's passion was long walks.
Hosni Mubarak played a great deal of squash until well into his 60s.
Before the image of him on a bicycle, Mr El Sisi was filmed jogging with his top commanders in military fatigues. The footage is often aired on state and private television channels to show the youthfulness and vigour of the next president - something a nation used to leaders with military backgrounds expect.