Asia

Why is Pakistan's army chief all over social media?

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Media captionPakistan's army chief is very prominent on social media

Is the army general more popular than the prime minister in Pakistan and what does that means for democracy? BBC Urdu's Amber Shamsi investigates.

Just off the main road between the political capital and army headquarters lies a ramshackle set of houses.

They're new builds but shoddily constructed. The mosque is no different.

But it has a grand title - it has been named after Pakistan's current army chief General Raheel Sharif.

"We want General Raheel Sharif to help us catch the land grabbers and land mafia," says a young bearded man on his way to prayers.

Many Pakistanis seem to see General Raheel Sharif as a messiah who is saving the country from terrorism, corruption and all manner of social ills.

Image copyright Social media
Image caption One of the memes on social media honouring the general

Wizened truck-art painter Habibur Rehman is one of them.

He has been decorating trucks in the traditional Pakistani way since 1955, where intricate patterns of flowers and birds are combined with political messaging.

Image caption Truck art painter Habibur Rehman (seen here on the right) is being kept busy

I ask him who his favourite leaders are.

"Benazir Bhutto is my all-time favourite," he says, swiftly mentioning her father Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto as his number two choice.

He then lists former presidents and military rulers Generals Ayub Khan, Zia-ul Haq and Yahya Khan.

I ask whether General Raheel Sharif makes the cut.

He raises his hand as if to the sky.

"Given the demand for him now and if he keeps performing well as a leader, he could even surpass the other five."

Image caption Political slogans have traditionally been painted on Pakistani trucks

All about Raheel

General Raheel Sharif is neither a prime minister nor president but his image is popping up across the country.

He appears in banners thanking him for restoring law and order in the chaotic city of Karachi, on the backs of rickshaws and his image has even been used by politicians running for local elections.

The general has also gone digital with the hashtag #ThankYouRaheelSharif appearing on Twitter and Facebook.

The hashtag first appeared after the attack on an army-run school in Peshawar on 16 December 2014.

The army chief seemed to lead the effort to catch and punish the militants responsible for killing 150 people, mostly schoolchildren.

Facebook pages, Twitter handles and memes praising General Sharif are now commonplace.

One mockingly shows Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, President Mamnoon Hussein and General Raheel Sharif sitting together, all with thought bubbles over their heads.

Image copyright Social media
Image caption Left to right: Raheel Sharif, Nawaz Sharif and Mamnoon Hussein

President Mamnoon is thinking of a snack, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is concerned with business while the general is thinking of Pakistan.

In a recent cover story on the personality cult of General Sharif, published in The Herald news magazine, journalist Umer Farooq asks whether such campaigns are being deliberately orchestrated.

He quotes Brigadier AR Siddiqi, a former official in the army's public relations arm, the Inter-Services Publicity Relations (ISPR), who says such image building often "happens under official direction and with the full weight of the state authority".

The ISPR denies this.

But Umer Farooq says the personality-led focus of the campaign gives the army a "political colour" which is beyond the role and function of a professional army.

Social satire

And where there is reverence online, there will also be mockery.

One producer at a TV channel took it upon himself to document the minutiae of his day based on the hashtag.

"On my way to work, all the traffic lights were green. #ThankYouRaheelSharif."

One satirical twitter account @DrMajorlyPhD recently wrote: "Watched Mad Max Fury Road. The story is bizarre but the movie is fantastic!! #ThankYouRaheelSharif".

But supporters on Twitter want an end to the "lame jokes" about the hashtag and have reported them by tagging the ISPR's director general Lieutenant General Asim Bajwa.

It is under his leadership that the army's publicity offerings - dramas, music videos and documentaries - have come to dominate the mainstream media landscape.

He was recently promoted from Major General to Lieutenant General.

In the army town of Rawalpindi, I meet Malik Mohammad Yousaf who has his car covered with giant posters of General Sharif.

Image caption Images of General Raheel Sharif can even be seen on car bonnets along with other Pakistani leaders

The general is set to retire next year and Mr Yousaf, who describes himself as a "disillusioned worker" in Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's party, says the general's term must be extended to continue the fight against terrorism.

This call has been echoed on social media.

And there is a precedent.

The previous incumbent, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, had his term extended without a social media campaign or public support.

But Ahmed Bilal, the president of the Pildat think-tank which promotes democracy, believes such talk weakens Pakistan's fragile civilian and democratic institutions.

He says Pildat opinion polls consistently show that Pakistanis no longer want military dictatorships despite supporting the army.

"A distinction needs to be made: military commanders are very popular but not as possible replacements for the current political leadership," said Mr Bilal.

But as Mr Yousaf lovingly oversees the final touches to his car, he has harsh words for politicians.

"If they continue like this, martial law is a better option."

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