Sunday, January 13, 2013

Supporting Egypt’s brave conscientious objectors

I begin this post with a response to a Crazy Note by my dear friend Dr. Maikel Nabil Sanad.  He wrote on his blog that “I realized that we freedom fighters in dictatorships believe in western values more than westerns themselves.”

I absolutely agree with your point in this respect, Maikel.  Many Russian dissidents such as my teacher the late Galina Starovoitova and Anna Politkovskaya gave their lives to oppose Putin, and many other Russian dissidents like Sergei Kovalev have spent many years of their lives in prison to challenge the Soviet regime.  Similarly, Maikel spent 10 months in prison and nearly lost his life on hunger strike in Egypt in pursuit of his commitment to Western democratic values.  Recently Zaidoun al Zoabi, a Syrian dissident, has been imprisoned for challenging the Assad regime.  So while Westerners tend to take our democratic freedoms for granted, Arab and Russian dissidents are prepared to risk and give their lives in support of these ideals.

I am writing this post in support of Egypt’s brave conscientious objectors.  They are members of the movement “No to Compulsory Military Recruitment” led by Maikel.  I admire the courage of these young men because their actions represent a frontal challenge to the Islamist and militarist ideologies in Egypt.  They are facing the risk of prison, torture, and death in peaceful pursuit of their beliefs.  In addition, they are also challenging the link between masculinity and war and promoting an alternative and humane vision of masculinity which refuses to participate in violence and which affirms the sanctity of human life.  These young men deserve support now, when they are first taking the dangerous and difficult decision to announce their conscientious objection.  Western democrats should not wait until they are beaten and imprisoned to help them. 

In some ways these Egyptian young men are even more courageous than the 500 Russian men who refused to fight in the first post-Communist Russian invasion of Chechnya in 1994 and 1996 and were granted exemption from military service.  Why? Despite its genocidal aggression in Chechnya, Russia in the 1990’s still had some democratic political institutions in place.  Leading Russian democrats like my late teacher Galina Starovoitova protested the Russian invasion of Chechnya and tried to stop the war.  Thus, in refusing to participate in this war, these young men knew they could count on institutional support from major Russian democratic politicians. 

In contrast, today these Egyptian young men are taking the risk of conscientious objection in a much more repressive political environment.  Unlike their Russian counterparts in the 1990’s, the Egyptian conscientious objectors cannot count on support from Egyptian civil society and democratic politicians.   Egypt today is dominated by Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood who have no real conception of Western democratic ideals and no capacity to understand, let alone support, the beliefs of these young men.

Mohamed Fathy, 23, expressed very eloquently his reasons for his conscientious objection. He states that military service violates his opposition to killing and violence in all its forms.  He feels he cannot participate in any type of war or killing, regardless of the circumstances.  He also perceives that conscription is an unnatural form of repression and control against young men.   He further opposes all forms of gender and religious discrimination.  Mr. Fathy’s actions are extremely courageous as he is a Muslim, and he is likely to be ostracized by his fellow Muslims for his refusal to serve in the army.

Emad al Dafrawi, 24, another conscientious objector, states his fierce opposition to war.  He believes that war is beneficial only to arms traders and not to the societies which engage in them.  He thinks that war represents a tragic and unnecessary waste of resources.  He also finds it unimaginable to be forced to obey illegal orders from militarists which require him to kill or wound civilians.  He perceives conscription as a form of slavery which violates his human rights.  He also states,”I believe that wars are crimes against humanity.” Mr. Dafrawi has not yet been arrested, but he is already suffering persecution and being denied the right to work, study, or travel as an official reprisal for his conscientious objection. 

In addition, I am deeply gratified that Ahmed Hassan has been granted his right to conscientious objection. He participated in a campaign to oppose the imposition of militarist indoctrination in civilian high schools.  Following the fall of the Mubarak regime, the military imposed a new requirement upon high school students.  Students were now compelled to participate in a course taught by military officers on the “Militarist Upbringing” in order to receive their high school diplomas. In response, conscientious objectors launched the campaign called “No to militarizing schools.”  The purpose is to encourage students to boycott the course on militarism.

Ahmed Hassan bravely and directly challenged the militarist institution at his school. He confronted the military leader at his leader and announced his refusal to participate in this course.  The school retaliated against him by blocking him from receiving the results of his high school exams and subjecting him to 15 days of military training in the summer. But under pressure, the school relented and reversed its decision to block him from receiving his high school results one week later.  Finally, under international pressure and a campaign of the No to Compulsory Service campaign, Mr. Hassan received his right to conscientious objection.

Mr. Hassan’s victory shows that international pressure can save the lives of conscientious objectors in Egypt and force the regime to grant young pacifist men the right to conscientious objection.  In addition, the campaign raised one very important issue: the regime’s practice of subjecting children under 18 to military service.  Minors should not be forced to participate in military service, and the attempt to coerce children to serve in the military is morally repulsive. 

This campaign deserves much greater publicity, recognition, and support in the West. These young men are bravely raising issues of fundamental human rights and exposing the many ways that forcible conscription violates their rights as human beings.  These men are also challenging the whole institution of war and raising awareness about the evils and injustices of militarism among both the Egyptian and the Western publics.  They are passionately questioning the whole ideology of militarism, and their voices should be much more widely heard.  

 Finally, I say thank you to Maikel’s brother Mark Nabil for his friendship to me and for his leadership in the pacifist and secular democratic movements in Egypt.  Mark Nabil started out defending his brother Maikel during Maikel’s imprisonment and hunger strike, but now Mark has become a political activist in his own right under increasingly perilous conditions in Egypt.  I stand with Mark Nabil and support his brave activist work.

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