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Aziz al-Afandi

Conscripts with connections get easy military service in Egypt

Conscripts with connections or money receive easy assignments [AFP]

Date of publication: 6 April, 2015

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Feature: Conscripts in the Egyptian army who can pay or who have the right connections can end up serving their country as waiters or shop assistants.

At the end of his final year in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Mansoura in Egypt's Delta, army recruit HD, 22, began searching for connections in Egypt's military to pull some strings and help him get a service exemption. Since the January revolution in 2011, it has been difficult to get an exemption, or even a postponement.

Through one of his acquaintances in the Armed Forces, HD had the opportunity to spend his military service in an Air Force services building in Cairo, away from trouble and danger. He was surprised, however, that his task in the Egyptian Armed Forces was renting out wedding halls.


This strange matter raises questions about the relationship between the length of the military service and arranging civilian weddings and events. However, HD told al-Araby al-Jadeed that for him and many other recruits, "this place beats other divisions."


"My colleagues who could not find strong connections envy me and wish they can be in my shoes, despite the humiliation I am subjected to in this service," said HD.


Army recruits in wedding halls


The story of HD was our cue to find out whether it was true what Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi said last December during the opening of the Galaa Medical Complex, which includes a hotel, an army hospital and other services and entertainment facilities. He said that more than 50,000 civilians worked in the Armed Forces' different sectors, including hospitals, hotels and service facilities, all serving civilians.

One time an army Colonel asked him to wash his car. He hesitated at first, almost refusing to obey the order.

"Those who say that recruits serve in the army's services facilities are wrong,"Sisi stated. However, HD denied this and explained that he and many others worked in wedding halls and renovation projects inside the building.


One time, he says, an army Colonel asked him to wash his car. HD hesitated at first, almost refusing to obey the order. "I thought for while, if I disobeyed him, he could oppress me, so I had to agree and wash it against my will". He added that the army's system depends on obeying orders, whether the orders were wrong or right.


Chemical warfare soap


We looked at several army services sites in an attempt to investigate this information through other examples.


The Defence Ministry's national services department includes nearly 10 companies, including the National Petroleum Company, which runs a large network of gas stations called "Wataniyah"(National).


I went to one of the "Wataniyah" gas stations on the desert road to southern Egypt, where I found most of the workers were army recruits doing their military service. The gas station includes an auto maintenance workshop and a carwash centre, as well as a cafe and a supermarket called "Smile".


The gas station also sold large bottles of liquid soap for low prices; 12 Egyptian Pounds per 10 litres (less than $2), made by the army's chemical warfare department, according to the information on the labels.


Safi water kiosks


To find out more about army conscripts working in the service sector of the armed forces, I looked for information on National Company that produces and bottles Safi water. The company is run by the National Service Projects Organisation and owns a number of kiosks close to military buildings that sell the mineral water to civilians. I documented the conscripts selling the water during their military service but I did not find out who was producing the water, although a former military reserve officer told al-Araby al-Jadeed, "The army employs experts either through contracting them as civilian staff or by picking them out of army conscripts with highly specialised degrees to work in the jobs that need expertise."

Recruits serving shisha (waterpipes)

While visiting a sport's club for border guard officers in a district of Cairo frequented by many civilians, officers and their families al-Araby al-Jadeed witnessed recruits carrying out their military service working as waiters, serving drinks and food to patrons while dressed in the club's uniform. One of the waiters briefly said, "Yes, I am a conscript. I have been waiting for my conscription to end three months from now so I can go back to my normal life as soon as possible and build myself a future."

A patron of the army-run sports clubs that serve shisha, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he was surprised to find army conscripts serving him shisha and was baffled because the conscripts should be in army camps or along the border, not in cafes.

Tiny salaries

Twenty-three year old conscript MS said he received a tiny salary each month of 246 pounds ($32) and a bonus of 100 pounds ($13). He called his salary "extremely small"in comparison to what he made before the army. MS lost his old job because he was conscripted and said he thought the army should take into account the circumstances of conscripts because the majority have personal obligations such as taking care of parents and preparing to get married, while some are already married and have children, putting their homes under threat.

Conscripts cannot choose how they will serve in the army nor can they object to their given role because the Egyptian constitution stipulates in article 86 that conscription is compulsory by law. The same article refers to the necessity of defending the nation and protecting its land, describing it as a sacred honour and duty. "So there is no need serve in non-military service and entertainment jobs," the conscript said.

The law grants full military exemptions in some cases including being unfit to perform military service, beyond the age of 30, having dual nationality or being an only son or the only male in a home. There are also temporary exemptions for students until the age of 28.

The National Service

The website of the army's National Service Projects Organisation says it was set up with the aim of making the army self-sufficient as far as possible, to lighten the load on the shoulders of the state, create a surplus in local markets and help small shops and supermarkets, as well as train young people in many fields of employment.


The organisation sometimes puts up job advertisements in newspapers and online for specialist positions for graduates with agriculture, veterinary medicine and industry degrees.

Stages of conscription

Conscript HD said around two months before his conscription began he handed in his official documents with his fingerprints and a photograph so his criminal record could be checked, then had a medical exam. After the army accepted him he was given a date to choose his weapon, the location of his unit and his training centre.

Bribes would sometimes go to waste when doctors mixed up who they are meant to unfairly exempt.

The Ministry of Defence's website says the period of conscription is essentially three years but this can be reduced depending on academic qualifications. A conscript with a university degree serves a year or three years if he is chosen as a reserve officer. Salaries vary, reaching 5,000 pounds ($800) after around a year and half, according to AE, a former reserve officer. A conscripted officer can keep on working in the army if he is asked to do so. Conscripts with high school diplomas serve a year and half and conscripts with middle school or lower degrees serve three years as soldiers, usually in the Central Security Forces run by the police.

Bribes

HD said the distribution of conscripts in training camps and units was done according to soldiers' backgrounds and fitness, but some conscripts have connections that help them obtain medical exemptions or placement in comfortable jobs, according to how well they know or how closely related they are to their connections. He added that some conscripts sometimes got exemptions by paying bribes to high ranking military officials, which start at 15,000 pounds ($2,000).


He said that sometimes the bribes go to waste when doctors mix up who they are meant to unfairly exempt.

MS explained that those who failed to find strong connections to help with the length of the military service are usually sent to dangerous areas, such as Sinai, or to divisions recruits usually warn against, such as the artillery or the infantry. On the other hand, the best division is the Air Force, where many wish to serve.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

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