Peering at the photographer from behind horn rimmed glasses, the young, bearded man’s eyes look more sad than defiant. But the sign he’s holding is incendiary.
“No to mandatory military service,” the sign says in Arabic. “No to slavery. No to forced work.”
The photo and more like it have been circulating social media in recent weeks as part of a campaign advocating that young Egyptians have a chance to choose whether or not they wish to serve in the military – a choice they have not had since Muhammad Ali made military conscription mandatory in the early 19th century.
Over the last 150 years, unwilling 18-30 year-old Egyptian men have blinded themselves or chopped fingers off their hands to avoid the 18-36 month conscription period.
The anti-military, pacifist campaign is backed by the activist group “No to Compulsory Military Service”, which was founded as a Facebook page in 2009. The group, which currently has over 9,100 likes on Facebook, recently became a member of War Resisters International, a London-based global pacifist and anti-militarist network with 80 affiliated groups in 40 countries.
Activist Maikel Nabil Sanad started the group with the intention of “abolishing all traits of militarist rule”. Sanad, who calls himself the first conscientious objector in Egypt, released a statement on 21 October 2010 entitled “I will not serve in the Egyptian army and I bear the consequences”, in which he explained his reasons for objecting to service.
“I am [a] pacifist, against holding weapons, against joining the military formations and paramilitary,” he wrote. “Accepting the recruitment would be coercion against my conscientious beliefs and my humanistic principles.”
Sanad called compulsory recruitment “a type of slavery”.
“I am a free person,” he said. “I struggled for long years for my freedom. I struggled against my family, my religious group, the society and the police. I paid the price of my freedom very well and I won it.”
Sanad designed the campaign to give likeminded youths a chance to speak out against a law they view as unjust. Some post pictures of themselves holding signs with slogans such as “forced conscription is slavery” accompanied by the group’s logo or “I support the right to conscientious objection to military service”.
This sort of activism comes with its fair share of risks, though. Sanad says he has been arrested five times for his activism, finally spending 10 months of a 3 year sentence in prison in 2012. He was released after a 130-day hunger strike and eventually left Egypt to live and study in Germany.
Recently, “No to Compulsory Military Service” started a solidarity campaign with two other conscientious objectors, Emad El-Dafrawi and Mohamed Fathy, 27 and 26 years old respectively. The men both sent letters to “Egyptian military and civilian authorities, demanding exemption from the military service and to have an alternate civilian service”, but both the letters went unanswered.
Like Sanad, El-Dafrawi wrote: “Military actions such as carrying arms and using violence, contradict with my beliefs,” adding that he would refuse to obey military orders if forced to enlist. Fathy voiced similar concerns, stating: “Obligatory conscription robs us from our natural rights in freedom of body, choice, movement, expressing opinions and beliefs.”
The group succeeded in receiving signatures of support from 19 national and international rights groups in support of El-Dafrawi and Fathy.
Although support for such a revolutionary cause seems taboo, the page encourages Egyptians to support the group: “Political events over the last couple years have proved that nothing is impossible”, adding that with one of the region’s largest standing armies, “there remains no justification for the existence of forced recruitment”.