Three years ago, I joined the military to complete my compulsory service. According to Egyptian law men, after completing their studies, are obliged to serve in the military or police forces. Unless this compulsory service is served or you are exempted for medical or legal reasons, you lose your civil rights as a citizen and are put on trial.
There are different types of service. If you hold a university 'higher education' degree, you either serve three years as an officer with the same full privileges as enrolled officers, or as a conscript for one year. If you hold a high school degree, you serve for two years as a conscript; if you have a lower degree or no degree, you serve for three years as a conscript. I fell under the first category. So, luckily, I served for one year as conscript. However, this was not just any year, it was the year of the revolution!
“Aboud on The Border” (Aboud al el-Hudoud) is an Egyptian comedy movie that sheds light on the process of enrolment in compulsory service, with all of its sufferings. In the movie, Aboud was about to join the army after his graduation. But because he was overweight he was hoping to be exempted, which enraged his father who was a former military officer.
His father wanted him to join the military by hook or by crook. So he decided to do everything he could to delay Aboud’s medical examination, which would have determined if he was exempt or not. From sauntering, to refusing to take a taxi and finally, nagging the taxi driver, the father succeeded in his plan and poor unfit Aboud had to spend some time in the army performing exhausting exercises until the next examination date. The movie then displays a series of grievances and hardships many conscripts face in a very humorous way. I thought, prior to my enrolment, that they were exaggerating - until I joined up.
One of the famous slogans of the Egyptian army is: “The Armed Forces is the factory of men”, indicating that it emboldens and encourages members. This is one of the many nationalistic and religious slogans that meet the conscript newcomers and accompany them till the very end of their service, in an attempt supposedly to lift their morale.
Unlike Aboud, my colleague in service, Sabry, had no reason to get exempted. Sabry was in his early twenties, with a high school diploma. His father had passed away, and he had to look after his mother and sisters. Like the majority of Egypt’s conscripts, Sabry worked hard during his vacation. This vacation would usually last one week after every three consecutive weeks on duty.
After a preliminary short training period we arrived at the unit, and Sabry, who had joined a year before, was the first to welcome us. He and I became friends despite our differences. At one point, I asked him if he felt he had become “stronger and emboldened” after this experience in the military and the answer was “No, I became a coward and a liar”. Ironically, my friend Sabry who lives in a poor village in south Giza and works as a craftsman so that his family can get by, feels that his durable personality that has faced many life tragedies has been negatively affected by spending time in the “Factory of Men”. This comes as no surprise.
Another example; the doctor responsible for medical care inside the unit told me a story about a soldier who felt strong pain in his abdomen and went to him asking for medication. After checking, the doctor suspected that it might be his appendix and wanted to refer him to hospital straight away for further examination. To do that, as the law states, the doctor has to ask the officer in charge to take him to the nearest hospital. Surprisingly, the officer asked the doctor (who was also a conscript) to give the sick soldier a painkiller as he was too busy playing Playstation with his colleagues and didn’t have the time.
I’m not a doctor, but I do know that an exploding appendix can kill a man. Thankfully, this didn’t happen as the doctor was persistent and the officer finally ceded his Playstation tournament, and the soldier was saved. Of course, this is probably not the case in all army units, but it was shocking to see how some may recklessly be reluctant to perform their duty when it comes to human lives.
There are three conditions under which a conscript is allowed not to obey a senior rank’s orders. These are: giving up money, uniforms or honour (engaging in forced homosexual relations), in addition to verbal and physical assault. Other than that, conscripts are expected to show blind obedience to higher ranks, which include senior conscripts who joined the army days before.
In Egypt, laws might sound good, but do institutions abide by them? The answer is no most of the time, and the military is no exception. Despite the law, I myself witnessed people getting beaten and humiliated unlawfully. The sad thing is that most conscripts do not know their rights. All they do know is not to retaliate for their own good, even if they have valid legal reasons. I still remember being told “The young [in rank], can never hurt the major [one]”.
My service was at the time the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was ruling the country after Mubarak’s downfall. After watching events from inside and outside the ruling institution, I had a different perspective, especially when it came to the atrocities committed under SCAF’s rule.
The world was shocked when they saw footage of the “Blue Bra Girl”. I was also shocked, yet after some thinking I understood the reasons behind such brutality and inhumanity. These soldiers who faced oppression and appalling conditions inside their units became oppressors themselves; releasing their rage that should have been directed at their superiors on people in vulnerable situations; the lady in the blue bra.
This finally gave me an understanding about what my friend Sabry told me; becoming a “coward and a liar”. It’s a chain of oppression that gradually dehumanises everyone.
Two months ago, El-Shorouk newspaper published statistics of the army and policemen who died in terrorist attacks over the past couple years. More than 400 were killed in these various attacks, and most of them were conscripts. According to the statistics, the largest number of killed soldiers was in Rafah, under Morsi’s rule, in August 2012. Fifteen soldiers were killed while breaking their fast during the month of Ramadan. After hearing the call to prayer, the soldiers rested their weapons and gathered to eat and this is when they were attacked. Of course the attack is vile and despicable, and no words can actually describe how awful it is. That said, I believe part of the responsibility falls on the leaders shoulders who did not train their soldiers to secure the place they were gathered to eat at. Has any leader been held accountable for not assuring the competency and readiness of the poor soldiers? I highly doubt it.
After finishing my service I visited a renowned Egyptian rights group and asked if there was a programme for following up on the conditions of soldiers and the whole recruitment process. The answer was a no with a promise to put together a plan for this in the future.
Last week I stopped by a booth that sells snacks called “Batates & Zalabya” and bought some Zalabya. For someone who served in the military, it was easy to figure out that these booths are owned by the army. Given their locations; just a few meters away from army units and on the same sidewalk. Civilians couldn’t dream of building that close to army units. Another give away is the way the workers are shaved and uniformed. These workers are army conscripts who are supposedly serving their country. Instead, they are being deployed as the workforce in military economic projects. This does not only take place in these booths, but also in gas stations, supermarkets, factories, clubs... etc. These conscripts work hard for a pittance of a salary, which is usually EGP 250 (USD 35) per month, and the army doesn’t pay any taxes on its commercial activities. Nevertheless, I did enjoy the Zalabya.
Due to lack of transparency, we don’t have accurate numbers about Egypt’s army manpower. The numbers according to different sources vary from 750 thousand to 1.5 million. This tells us how the issue of conscription affects hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Egyptian families and should be addressed among Egypt’s other social and economic problems.
While it is true that a civilian oversight on Egypt’s military might seem far from being attained for now, so is every other demand of the revolution. If 'human dignity' is one of the 25 January 2011 goals, then every political party and rights group should demand it for everyone, including Egypt’s soldiers who patriotically serve the country, putting their own lives on the line despite their ongoing ordeal.