Does conscription serve the Egyptian nation or its officers?

Does conscription serve the Egyptian nation or its officers?
Conscripts are humiliated and mistreated then put to work as an officer's personal servant or, perhaps, in a factory.
5 min read
06 Dec, 2014
Military service may involve a lot of tedious guard duty [Getty]
"The bullet that we pay for
using the money for bread and medicine,
does not kill our enemies
it kills us,
If we raised our voices loudly
It kills us, and kills the children!"
- Amal Dunqul

You spend long hours in the training camp, from 6am to 5pm, under the blazing sun in the summer and in freezing cold in the winter. They get you after you conduct the medical exam for conscription, and you will lose most of your strength and what remains of your dignity and humanity for no clear reason. Surprisingly, the government is convinced young people must spend all those hours training to become men. Men who will end up working in a function hall belonging to the armed forces, or a pasta or tomato puree factory.

You will read the initials and not the full names of those who tell the stories of their miserable lives during military service below, to protect themselves from a possible military trial.

Inhumane treatment

Conscripted soldier AA told al-Araby al-Jadeed that "the worst thing we endure [in military service] is inhumane treatment as conscripts".

"The first tragedy is that of the 'allotment', Egyptian military slang for food and drink. It is thrown at us in a tin box and is made up of rice mixed with some sort of vegetables. We do not eat it most of the time because of its horrible smell."

The insults start from the moment you conduct the medical exam, a literal manifestation of the violation of a person’s privacy and humanity.

AA said the treatment conscripts received from officers was terrible.

The called conscripts "son of a ...", using a word to mean prostitute, he said, adding that this is "normal".

"The officer does not mean anything by it, it is just [the military's] culture", he explained.

"When I first started my conscription, I was expecting to carry a gun to defend the country, but my enthusiasm was lost when I was made an 'assisting soldier'."

He was made a servant for the officer commanding his unit, he said, cleaning his superior's room, clothes and shoes daily.

"If I were to object, I was punished by being made to dig holes in the desert for no purpose other than being punished, or I would have to move water from one place to another a few kilometres away in the desert", he said.

A violation of humanity and privacy

Another conscript, MA, a young man in his early twenties, described the ill-treatment he received in the training camp.

"The law grants us leave every 28 days, but we do not get leave without the approval of officers who give it to us according to their whims, sometimes after 67 days of service and others every 73 days.

"The insults start from the moment you conduct the medical exam, which is the literal manifestation of the violation of a person's privacy and humanity."

He said the exam was conducted in public. He also said conscripts did not receive drinkable water as the water they get to drink is mixed with phenol, a substance used in cleaning products.

"There are some in the army and the government who think these procedures will create men able to face death and overcome all manner of difficulties, but the reality is the complete opposite, as degradation and insults have no role in creating strong men," said MA.

He said that he had dreamed of truly serving the country by "standing with my weapon to protect the country's borders and its territory, not standing with an unloaded weapon risking my life for no reason without being able to defend myself when I am in danger".

MS, a former conscript, described some of the events that he witnessed during his time in the army.

"One of my colleagues who was conscripted for military service had a wife and a daughter," he said. "However, that did not exempt him from military service, which ended up ruining his life after he was fired from his job for being absent due to his conscription."

MS told another story about a colleague who shot himself in the foot to be relieved of duty serving the officers who had physically and physiologically abused him. However, he said, it was to no avail as "he was forced to complete his conscription in addition to having a court sentence issued against him".

Indoctrination against revolution

"The way conscripts are treated is connected with the revolution," said MS. "They are placed under security supervision, and may get tried and sentenced depending on the reports against them and the danger they pose according to air force intelligence."

The 1980 conscription law legalised systematic oppression. The state punishes the uneducated sons of the poor.
- Journalist Ahmad Samir

He also stated that the Moral Affairs Department of the armed forces "conducts regular visits to the training camps of new recruits to warn them of the dangers of revolutions and those who take part in them, stressing the importance of staying away from those people and identifying them once they are detected in the military camp".

"The 1980 conscription law is a law that legalised systematic oppression," journalist Ahmad Samir told al-Araby. "The state punishes the uneducated sons of the poor because the state has not provided them with an education."

Samir added that the interior ministry did not make the effort to train recruits into real law enforcement officials who protect people. "I believe it would be better to put those recruits on traffic and cleaning duty rather than holding them hostage for years in central security vehicles," he said.

Defending the country and protecting national security is a patriotic duty and a sacred honour that cannot be refused by any citizen. However, in this age, escaping military duty has become the choice of the youth of this generation.

When the sacred duty of serving the country turns into serving its military's officers, a firm stand needs to be taken to set matters straight.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.