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Ghilan al-Husseini

The campaign against conscription in Egypt

Egyptian conscripts have come under attack in Sinai [AFP]

Date of publication: 25 April, 2015

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Feature: Egyptians are starting to organise against forced conscription into the armed services, condemning it as "slavery" and "a waste of life".
Young people in Egypt are often faced with a difficult choice: stay, and endure years of poverty and unemployment, or take the route of illegal migration to Europe. 

Those who stay know they live in a country where there is little social justice and few opportunities, unless they have the right "connections" to improve their lives.

For many, the only alternative is to sell their belongings to afford the perilous journey across the sea to a European country.

One factor in the making the decision for many young men is the country's compulsory military service. They are forced to commit between one and three years to either the armed forces or the police, according to their educational attainment.

Opposition to conscription is growing, however, and in recent years a number of organisations opposing it have appeared.

One such is Ikhlaa, whose name means "to take off", in reference to military uniform. The organisation was set up last year after the Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis group in Sinai released a video showing the killing of Egyptian conscripts.

Another group, No to Compulsory Conscription, predates it. Founded on 9 April 2009, it describes itself as "a peaceful anti-conscription movement that opposes violence and war and works to spread the culture of peace and non-violence".

One of its coordinators spoke to Al-Araby al-Jadeed on condition of anonymity: "Young Egyptians fear that conscription will obstruct their futures and delay their work and travel opportunities. To many, conscription is a continuation of slavery; they don't believe in it but they are forced to serve in order to get on with their lives." 

     I refused to take the military studies exam in school... Eventually, the principal relented and I received my diploma.
- Ahmad Hassan, conscientious objector

Continuation of slavery

The organisation's website says just this. And it calls the conscription system "prejudiced", differentiating between citizens on the basis of their gender, religion, age of father, gender of siblings and nationality of parents.

It argues that the state does not need the large number of conscripts it currently has, and says conscription hurts the country's economic productivity.

It also says that conscription enhances the military's power over civilians, which contradicts the idea of a civil state and strips conscripts of political rights. The organisation aims to change the law in Egypt to make military service voluntary.

The group's coordinator went as far as to name a number of members who had refused to serve and faced difficulties as a result.

Michael Nabil was one such conscientious objector. In 2010, he refused to report for conscription and was arrested for interrogation by Military Intelligence. Others include Haitham al-Kashef and Ahmad Hassan, who both refused military service in 2012.

"It's hard to count, because anyone who fails to report to the conscription office is held to have evaded service," said the group's coordinator. 

"We only know the conscientious objectors who have contacted us. We issue statements of solidarity with them and contact other organisations to do the same. Among them I can name Muhammad Fathi, Imad al-Dafrawi, Ahmad Hassan and Michael Nabil, and we are also in touch with a number of other objectors who have not taken a final decision to evade service yet."

Ahmad Hassan himself spoke to al-Araby: "I refused to take the military studies exam in high school. So the school principal and the military adviser in my governorate tried to make me take part in a 15-day military training course as a condition for receiving my high school diploma. When I refused they blocked my results.

     The state should compensate conscripts, so they don't feel that they have had their lives confiscated in the name of nationalism. 
- Abdullah al-Masri

"I had to send a petition to the governor, the military adviser, the principal and the minister of education explaining why I wanted to be exempt from military studies because of my beliefs and because I was less than 18 at the time. Eventually, the school principal relented and I received my diploma."

While Hassan refused service due to his pacifist beliefs, others have different motives.

Abdullah al-Masri told us his motive for refusing service was economic. He left Egypt to avoid military service after receiving government approval to study abroad, he said, but he was not completely against the idea.

Being close to 30 and still completing his education, he is anxious to achieve professional and financial stability, which he fears military service would delay.

"Conscription has negatives and positives," he said. "It is supposed to be the basis for building a strong army formed by the population, but it takes away important years in a young man's life, years in which he should work and start a career."

Once he returns to Egypt, he expects to face a military tribunal which will most probably fine him for evading service, said Masri.

"The state should compensate conscripts for this period, so they don't feel that they have had their lives confiscated in the name of nationalism."

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