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How Egypt's Conscription Generates Unemployment and Refugees

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While in Berlin, this spring, I met Egyptian twins who had to flee Egypt and seek asylum in Germany. They left Egypt, together, in March for several reasons, including their unwillingness to serve in the Egyptian army. They didn't want to be a part of the Egyptian army's systemic crimes. And, as Egypt doesn't recognize the right to refuse military service for conscientious reasons, they had to choose between prison and exile! These twins aren't the only cases of this type that I witnessed. Last year, I assisted an Egyptian activist seeking asylum in the United States on the same grounds. I was also consulted recently about the case of a former Egyptian soldier who flew to Greece after being imprisoned in Egypt for escaping the military service.

Actually, there is enormous number of cases like this in the last decades. This trend began in 1967 when Egypt started its six year military campaign to retake Sinai from Israel. In 1972, Netherlands rejected the application of, then deported, two Egyptian asylum seekers applying for refugee status because they didn't want to serve in the Egyptian army. I, personally, can't understand the Dutch decision, because these asylum-seekers might have faced the death penalty as Egypt was at war at that time!

The current conscription system in Egypt was installed immediately after the 1952 military coup. At that time, the junta government changed the military law enforcing an obligatory conscription of every Egyptian male between the ages of 18 and 30. And, even Egypt is a signatory of the International Covenant on civil and political rights which guarantees freedom of belief and conscience (article 18), and the Egyptian constitution guarantees freedom of belief (article 64), the Egyptian military regime still refuses to recognize the right to conscientious objection of the military service. Even in cases of Egyptian conscientious objectors like me, the Egyptian army only granted exemptions from military service on medical or security grounds, to avoid establishing a new precedent by recognizing the conscientious motives.

I can't deny that most Egyptians who try to evade military service don't do so for conscientious or ideological reasons. Conscripts in Egypt are mistreated and under-paid, and that the country has signed a peace treaty with Israel (the only country that Egypt fought after WWI), so, conscripts don't see a reason to waste three years of their lives in the army.

Many young conscription-evaders are forced into an in illegal limbo, denied most of their civil rights until they reach the age of 30. The 1980 conscription law makes having the conscription completion document a precondition for studying at any Egyptian university, applying for any job, or issuing a travel document. Any employer who hires an applicant without conscription documents can be fined and imprisoned for two years. Thousands of conscription evaders, who can't be legally hired in Egypt, often end up in small boats crossing the Mediterranean either looking for illegal jobs in Europe or applying for refugee status.

In NoMilService, Egypt's counter-conscription movement, we experienced the financial consequences of evading conscription, while we were campaigning for our Conscientious Objectors. In 2012, Emad Dafrawi and Mohamed Fathi refused military service on conscientious grounds - they requested that the Defense Ministry allow them to serve in civilian positions instead. But, the Egyptian army ignored their cases, leaving them in illegal status, unable to work, study or travel. The same circumstances are now occurring with my brother, Mark Nabil, after the military stopped his conscription procedures last April on security grounds, but refuses to give him his conscription document disallowing him from working, studying or traveling. Mark graduated from university over a year ago, but, because the Egyptian military refuses to grant him his official documents, he has been unemployed and unable to travel legally during the last year, and will probably be trapped in this endless loop for months or years!

Sadly, this isn't the only damage to Egypt's economy caused by its army. The Egyptian military is deeply entrenched in the nation's business sector, owning about 87% of Egypt's land, and over one third of its businesses. Such intervention in the market drives competition away, and decreases the number of jobs. Military-owned corporations don't create jobs, because they use recruits as free labor. And, the recruitment of youths for years at the start of their careers creates obstacles in the paths of young people who want to become entrepreneurs. Conscription also deprives the Egyptian government of tax money which those young Egyptians would pay if they weren't forced into military service and could, instead, work in a private industry.

Many International actors, including the US government, support the Egyptian military, in the belief that Egypt's army can restore stability, and, in doing so, stem the flow of refugees out of Egypt. But it's the Egyptian military, through its stubbornness dealing with the conscientious objection issue, which generates refugees every day. The world sends billions of dollars in aid to the Egyptian military regime aiming in an attempt to stimulate the economy and reduce unemployment. But it's the Egyptian army, with its hardline stance on conscription, which denies many Egyptians the legal right to work in Egypt.

The Egyptian military regime must be pressured to ease up on its conscription law, allowing a legal status for those who don't want to serve in the army, instead of forcing them to be unemployed or flee the country!

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