On July 1, two days before the second anniversary of the regime change that brought President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to power, Egypt’s military suffered its most significant terrorist attack in the Sinai Peninsula when Islamic State-affiliated (IS) militants overwhelmed numerous security checkpoints around the town of Sheikh Zuweid. According to the government, the operation claimed the lives of 21 soldiers, but some reports estimated the death toll at more than 50.
As photos of the young conscripts who had died circulated in newspapers and on social media, many Egyptians were alarmed at how the military could crumble so tragically. The martyred became the latest of at least 600 security personnel to lose their lives in the government’s war on terrorism.
“They send conscripts to Sinai poorly equipped and barely prepared; the recruits don’t even know how to shoot properly,” said Hassan (pseudonym), a 21-year-old student from a middle-class neighborhood in northern Cairo. “I don’t want to subject myself to this.” Hassan told Al-Monitor that he will do whatever it takes to avoid the “near slavery” of conscription.
Each year, Egypt enlists hundreds of thousands of young men to serve in the military, but critics say they are not trained well and are more often used as a form of cheap labor. Recruits face up to three years of mandatory service and a nominal wage of 250 Egyptian pounds ($35) a month. Some are sent to the front lines in the restive North Sinai, while others are dispatched to police urban areas. The more fortunate can pull strings to find shelter amid the relative safety of the military’s pasta factories and petrol stations. Exemptions are permitted for certain medical conditions or if a family has only one son or breadwinner.
Hassan has always been concerned about the prospect of having to join the military. In 2013, he realized a possible way out when he photographed the security forces’ brutal dispersal of the Rabia al-Adawiya sit-in, during which, according to Human Rights Watch, more than 800 Muslim Brotherhood supporters were killed. The government put the number of dead at 600.
On paper, Hassan is a French student at a Cairo university, but in truth he works as a photojournalist for a leading foreign news agency and is purposely slacking in his studies to avoid being recruited. Students are permitted to study until the age of 29, after which they can be forcibly ejected to undertake service. Hassan says he will leave for Turkey for a while, until he passes the age of 30, when he will no longer be eligible to serve back home. His opportunity to make a living by working for a foreign news agency while pushing back his service is not an option open to many Egyptians, who must present paperwork to local employers to secure decent work.
Organizations such as Amnesty International argue that the right to decline military service is guaranteed by international convention, specifically Article 8 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Amnesty International maintains that, based on the covenant, compulsory service without accommodation for conscientious objectors “amounts to an unjustified interference with the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief and is not compatible with international human rights law.” Nevertheless, in Egypt it is illegal to refuse to perform military service. Article 86 of the 2014 constitution states, “Protecting national security is a duty … Military service is mandatory.”
On the face of it, the only guaranteed route for a desperate Egyptian youth to avoid conscription is to leave the country or agree to confinement in a prison cell for two years. Maikel Nabil, a conscientious objector, told Al-Monitor, “There are hundreds of people in prisons in Egypt for avoiding conscription. When I was in prison in 2011, I met at least 30 people imprisoned for avoiding service.”
Nabil refused to be enlisted in 2009, becoming the first known Egyptian in recent times to object to conscription on pacifist grounds. While stuck in legal limbo, he launched the No for Compulsory Military Service Movement. He was detained five times for publicly campaigning and refusing to serve and was ultimately handed a two-year prison sentence for insulting the military.
A lack of transparency in Egypt’s state institutions makes it hard to obtain concrete figures on the number of conscripts enlisted each year, how many evade service and how many end up in prison. The media office at the Ministry of Defense refused to comment on three occasions when contacted by Al-Monitor. Mohamed Samir, the ministry's chief spokesperson, did not respond to phone calls.
An army colonel with the Sinai command, however, agreed to speak to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. He could not provide an exact figure but said that there are “thousands” who find a way to avoid conscription. Those who do not evade it entirely seek other means of dealing with the experience.
“Many families fear that their children will be sent to war fronts. They don’t escape but use 'wasta' [connections] to do their service in administrative departments, military hotels and offices,” the colonel said.
Ayman Zohry, a researcher who has produced reports for such institutions as the International Organization for Migration, said that despite a lack of accurate information, avoiding military service is not a significant cause behind Egyptians living legally abroad because of difficulties securing permission. “However, if you choose to enter a country on a two-month tourist visa and overstay illegally, then that is different. The Egyptian government does not know anything about it,” Zohry told Al-Monitor.
Nabil, released from prison in 2012, now lives in Washington. He says that after the 2011 revolution, conscripts have even more motivation to avoid recruitment as they face increased terrorism and must do things they might not morally agree with, like suppressing protests.
“Many people, I believe tens of thousands, leave the country and do not return until the age of 30, or they have another citizenship. I am not at liberty to speak about specific cases, but I have been consulted several times, and I can say there are at least tens of cases across Europe of Egyptians who have claimed asylum on these grounds,” he said.
Al-Monitor met in Cairo with three young members of the conscientious objector movement Nabil started. Ahmed Hassan, a 20-year-old law student and current secretary of the movement, said, “If I have no choice but being imprisoned or traveling abroad, I will leave.”
Although their movement is still small — growing from three to 30 members after the revolution — they are celebrating a huge victory that points to a possible alternative to migration or prison: Two weeks before the Sinai attacks, two of them were granted exemptions from the office of Minister of Defense Sedki Sobhy after having refused to serve.
Mark Nabil, Maikel's younger brother, and Mostafa el-Saeed told Al-Monitor that the minister’s exemption was issued without stating a reason or recognizing them as conscientious objectors. Hassan believes he knows why, stating, “The military and the government do not want people to know they have the right to refuse. When Maikel was in prison, people started to talk about him and say there is someone who refused to do the military service.”
Hassan reasoned that the military is engaging in political recruiting, a theory with which the colonel agrees. The latter stated, “When students or young people are arrested [for Islamist reasons], they have a file in State Security, and in that case they are selected and silently exempted from service.”
Hassan, with a year of university left before graduation, is hoping that the glimmer of a right to conscientious objection might extend to himself. He remarked, “It is impossible for me to do the service. In school, there was a two-week class for military training, and they gave me a weapon to shoot, but I was not able to do it. I could not carry the weapon. I want to live in peace, not be a part of war.”