It must be lonely for Emad El-Dafrawi. A 24-year-old Egyptian graduate of media studies, he is one of only two self-proclaimed conscientious objectors in a country where the military today doubles as the executive.
“I’m a pacifist, an anti-militarist, a campaigner,” he says. An amateur linguist and technology freak, this Cairo resident could be as carefree as the next youngster, were it not for the threat of immediate arrest looming over him — a result of his decision to dodge the Egyptian draft. Dafrawi deferred his military service until after completing university, but then simply did not appear at the conscription office on his assigned date of January 13.
“I believe that recruitment and military service are a kind of slavery, but military service in Egypt is even worse,” he says. “People don’t have rights, they’re humiliated almost all the time, they receive no medical insurance. People can get killed and their body will be returned to their family [with] 200-300 Egyptian pounds [$33-$50]. This is very little. It’s very cheap and very insulting.”
‘Army recruits are being told that Israel is their enemy and Jews are eternal enemies’
Dafrawi has good reason to fear the military’s wrath. His friend and fellow pacifist Maikel Nabil became the first Egyptian arrested by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in March 2011, following the publication of a blog post in which he questioned the image of the military as defender of the Egyptian revolution. Nabil served 10 months before being released from prison following a 130-day hunger strike.
“Since the Nasser era in the 1950s there is a law preventing journalists from speaking out against the army,” says Dafrawi. “I’m not even sure this interview will not be used as an excuse to try me.”
“They may arrest me, but Egyptians have stayed silent for 60 years while their rights were violated… there should be a stand. We can’t stay silent any more.”
To spread his views, Dafrawi joined a movement called No to Compulsory Military Service, established by Maikel Nabil in 2009. With only a dozen members, this is Egypt’s first anti-military organization, he says. Dafrawi believes, however, that many more Egyptians secretly sympathize with the movement’s cause.
“People don’t like the army, but these ideas of conscientious objection and nonviolence are not really that crystallized among the youth,” he says.
The objectors’ website shows an Egyptian newspaper clipping from April 24. It reports that a soldier was sentenced by an Egyptian military court to 15 days in prison for claiming to have received orders to shoot at civilian protesters during riots at Muhammad Mahmoud street in November 2011.
‘I believe that recruitment and military service are a kind of slavery, but military service in Egypt is even worse’
“This will be your destiny if you agree to be drafted and refuse to shoot at your people and family,” writes Maikel Nabil. “Is it not better to refuse compulsory recruitment in the first place?”
Dafrawi expects many Egyptians to heed Nabil’s call in the coming year and publicly declare themselves conscientious objectors. Since last year’s uprising, he says, people have begun to understand the detrimental effect of the military on Egyptian society.
“Mubarak’s government was like a facade. It almost appeared not to be a militarist regime. But people who really understand Egypt’s history know it was in fact military rule. It’s the same regime since 1952.”
The current military council governing Egypt, claims Dafrawi, is but an extension of Mubarak’s own military regime.
“It didn’t fall, it’s the same regime. It’s not a 30-year-old regime but a 60-year-old regime,” he says.
On Israel, the SCAF has played an ambivalent role. On the one hand it maintains security coordination with Israel, but on the other it continues to define Israel as Egypt’s eastern enemy.
“Militarist regimes always need to claim they have a foreign enemy. Even if they didn’t have [Israel], they would initiate antagonistic stances with other nations,” Dafrawi says. “Since its beginning, the military regime in Egypt considered Israel an eternal enemy. This is apparent through the preventable wars fought by Egypt and Israel since 1952.”
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman recently questioned the effectiveness of the Egyptian military’s crackdown on al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula. Warning of growing political instability in Egypt, Lieberman suggested reconstructing Israel’s southern command, reinforcing it with three or four divisions. In response, Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein Tantawi threatened to respond with force against Israel and “break the leg” of forces advancing on Egypt’s borders.
“Army recruits are being told that Israel is their enemy and Jews are eternal enemies,” Dafrawi says. The media, dominated by the SCAF, constantly incites Egyptians against Israelis, he adds.
‘If there will be a genuine democracy in Egypt, if censorship stopped, if normalization was allowed, there would be perfect peace with Israel’
“They control what people think and don’t think,” he says. The Camp David Peace Accords between Israel and Egypt were meant to bring an end to incitement and full normalization with Israel but failed to do so, he notes. To this day, Egyptians wishing to visit Israel are interrogated by Egypt’s military intelligence.
Three weeks before the presidential elections in Egypt, Dafrawi believes the SCAF is doing all it can to manipulate the outcome. He says the limitations placed on candidates wishing to run are “restrictive, ultra-nationalistic and unjustified.”
“It’s as if the army chooses for you who to vote for,” he says, adding that the army may even postpone or cancel the presidential elections, using Egypt’s current security instability as an excuse.
Dafrawi has a message to convey to Israelis.
“Normal Egyptians don’t want wars. They don’t hate Israelis. The media makes anti-Israeli protests seem so intense, as if these people want to go to Israel and kill everybody there. It’s not like that.”
“It is more important to care about relations between the two peoples. Governments and politicians come and go.If there will be a genuine democracy in Egypt, if censorship stopped, if normalization was allowed, there would be perfect peace.”
Follow @ElhananMiller on Twitter