Transitions

Egyptians and Israelis find something to agree on

In what might be a first for history, a group of Egyptian conscientious objectors protested in Cairo last Tuesday for the freedom of a Jewish Israeli citizen. Representing the "No to Compulsory Military Service" movement, while simultaneously promoting the right of Israel to exist, the peace activists came out to Talaat Harb Square, just meters ...

Maikel Nabil Sanad
Maikel Nabil Sanad

In what might be a first for history, a group of Egyptian conscientious objectors protested in Cairo last Tuesday for the freedom of a Jewish Israeli citizen. Representing the "No to Compulsory Military Service" movement, while simultaneously promoting the right of Israel to exist, the peace activists came out to Talaat Harb Square, just meters from Tahrir Square, to support the rights of their fellow objector, Natan Blanc.

Natan, for those who don’t know him, is a 19-year-old Israeli citizen imprisoned for refusing to serve in the Israeli army. Natan has spent over 120 days in detention and will most likely have his ninth military trial this week on April 15. Natan said in his objection declaration that he reached his decision during Operation Cast Lead in 2008, when he observed how the war fueled negative feelings on both sides and induced a wave of militarism in Israeli society. In a video statement he made a few weeks ago, Natan spoke against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, and said that it’s not democratic to prevent Palestinians from voting in Israeli elections while they are living under the Israeli state.

 

Every Israeli citizen is obligated to serve in the IDF when they reach 18-years of age (three years for males, two years for females). Israel may be the only country in MENA region whose laws recognize the right to refuse military service for reasons related to belief and conscience, but in practice, the Israeli army has been very strict in their interpretation of who qualifies as a conscientious objector, and sends most people that refuse military service to prison for "disobeying military orders." In order to circumvent the army, Israeli youth have managed to find some loopholes by claiming to have psychological troubles. The interesting thing about Natan is that while he could have copied the practices of other abstainers, he refused in order to emphasize his opposition to the practices of the IDF.

In Egypt the situation is a bit worse. Egyptian laws don’t recognize the right of Egyptians to refuse military service on the basis of belief or conscience. In 2010, I was one of the first Egyptians to refuse the military service because it went against my morals and principles. The military ignored me for about a year and then, in November 2010, I was kidnapped from my house by  military police; later I was released after being exempted from the military service on the grounds that I was suffering from "Acute Personality Disorder."  (A disease, according to them, that hasn’t yet been discovered by psychologists.) After the military took power in February 2011, they arrested me again, and accused me of spreading false information that affected the reputation of the army. I was tried and sentenced to three years in prison. Luckily the international community responded, and after ten months in jail and 130 days on hunger strike, I was released.

In 2012, two other Egyptians (also at Tuesday’s protest) announced their refusal to serve in the army for reasons of conscience. The first was Emad Dafrawi, a famous peace activist who promotes good relations with Israel. Emad told the Jerusalem Post last January that the Egyptian dictatorship was responsible for the anti-Israel incitement, and that most Egyptians don’t have a problem with Israel. The second objector, Mohamed Fathy, objected to the violence of the army against civilians after the revolution. He decided that he couldn’t accept obeying military orders of such army.

Both Emad and Mohammed continue to live in limbo since the day they refused to report to the military recruitment center. Without documentation from the army saying that they have finished their military service, they are barred from taking part in fundamental aspects of society. They are not allowed to work, and hiring them is punishable by two years imprisonment. They are not allowed to travel, or even to have passports. They are not allowed to study at any Egyptian university. And of course the military can arrest them at any moment, try them, and then send them to jail for countless years. The Egyptian authorities, despite the fact that the constitution guarantees the freedom of belief, have been ignoring all their requests to serve in an alternative civilian service. Egyptian human rights organizations have abandoned them, and until now there is not a single human rights lawyer that has agreed to represent them legally. Even international groups like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the United Nations Human Rights Council have ignored their cases.

Last week I contacted the Israeli Foreign Ministry considering Natan’s case. They reacted in the same way as the Egyptian authorities. They just ignored my message in a manner indicative of the Israeli and the Egyptian governments’ disregard for human rights criticism, choosing instead to go forward with their policies that make their citizens suffer.

The problem in the Middle East is not that we lack peace activists. The problem is that our governments keep peace activists busy fighting for their basic rights, instead of leaving them free to work on actually building peace.

Maikel Nabil Sanad is an Egyptian activist and leader of the "No to Compulsory Military Service" movement. 

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