Two weeks into my prison sentence, as I stood by the cell’s open door during exercise time, I saw two inmates holding a third from his underarms. They were walking him through the corridor, with the prison guard hurrying them to move faster as they struggled with the heavy weight of his body and his enormous head sloping over his chest.
As they passed in front of me, he raised his head for a few seconds. I could not make out the size of the wound on his forehead as blood had covered half of his face. Drool was trickling from his wide-open mouth. He had one eye closed and covered in blood; the other was open and in shock. He looked my way but didn’t really see me. The look on his face was one of emptiness and absence. He wore a cheap plastic slipper on one foot only, while the other foot dragged bare on the floor, sweeping the dirt and cigarette butts off the corridor tiles.
Every now and then, that kid would attempt suicide or start trouble bringing physical harm onto himself and collective punishment onto those who shared a cell with him. One week after I first saw him, the electricity was cut off from the entire prison for a few minutes. My cellmates and I heard screaming, mooing, and barking coming from the adjacent cell. At that moment, I was standing by the cell block’s closed door, my nose sandwiched between its metal bars and the wire mesh covering them. I was trying to breathe in air that wasn’t saturated with fart—like the air which permeated the cell. An informant passed in front of me, along with two prisoners, carrying the kid to the prison clinic—except, this time, he was completely barefoot, and his upper body naked. The next day, we learned that he had tried to commit suicide by stripping the main wire that supplied his cell with electricity. After stripping part of it with his teeth, he grabbed onto the wire—and held onto it—while his body shook. They said that he would most likely survive but that he had suffered serious burns on his hands.
The kid kept on trying to commit suicide, until he drove the prison warden to despair. Finally, after much wrangling and negotiating, the warden succeeded in having him transferred to another prison, making him another warden’s problem.
The kid was no older than 21. He clearly suffered from a problem with his facial nerves, and no doubt other developmental issues which caused him to stutter, conflating letters and jumbling sentences. Everything about him pointed to the fact that he needed medical and psychiatric attention; he was clearly not in the right place.
But no one was able to help him. The kid was from the Sa‘id [a village in Upper Egypt], and came from a very poor family who would visit him once a month, if that. He was arrested arbitrarily, the excuse being that he wasn’t carrying proof of completion of his military service. He was then transferred to a military court, where he was charged with evading military service and sentenced to three years in prison.
A quarter of the inmates in our prison were here on similar charges. In all of Egypt, those evading military service constitute a significant burden on the penitentiary system, to the point that military prisons can no longer accommodate them, driving the Ministry of Defense to rent prisons from the Ministry of Interior Affairs, making them serve their sentences in civilian prisons.
In prison, we refer to them as the “soldiers,” most of whom come from working-class families. They evade military service for the same reasons that poor Egyptians have been avoiding military service since the time of Muhammad ‘Ali and to this day—namely in order to support their families and avoid going through the experience of the recruit Mitwali in the story of Shafiqa and Mitwali. Most of them haven’t finished school; the lucky among them might be able to spell their names but are otherwise illiterate. Their families take them out of school early and put them up for any kind of work. By the age of 17, any one of these children is likely to spend his day working in a metal shop or driving a tuk tuk, their only moment of happiness being when they eat their bag of kushari soaked in salsa and chili sauce.
When he reaches 17, the age of obligatory military service in Egypt, he suddenly falls into a trap. The police officer looks at his ID and asks for proof of military service. Then, total darkness.
They pluck him from his home and his family which he supports in Upper Egypt or in the Delta and ship him to Cairo. Military trials are for show only, each involving up to 500 men accused of military service evasion. There’s no time for justice in these trials. The judge hurriedly issues his verdict and leaves, complaining of the smell of all these men’s sweat in the overcrowded courtroom.
Our dazed young man fell into this whirlpool and ended up at our prison. With the mind of a child in a man’s body, he only knew how to say koka, meaning chicken, and rizza, meaning a plate of rice.
Being in prison destroyed what was left of his conscience. All he could do was keep attempting his failed suicides, his mind too simple to manage a successful one.
Around 200 years ago, Muhammad ‘Ali decided to make military service mandatory for Egyptians. On February 18, 1822, he sent a letter to his governor in Girga, Ahmad Basha Taher, in which he said:
It is evident that we are sending our troops, led by our sons, to the Sudan to bring us blacks to use in our campaign in the Hijaz and for other such purposes… Since the Turks, who are of our kind, should stay close to us at all times rather than be sent to these faraway places, we find it necessary and appropriate to enlist a number of soldiers from Upper Egypt. We find it therefore appropriate to conscript around four thousand men from these districts.
After failed attempts to increase the size of his army, Muhammad ‘Ali was finally convinced that the only solution was to recruit Egyptians. He didn’t trust the Turks and Albanians with whom he shared the same ethnic background. He also twice tried—and failed—to conscript the Sudanese through enslavement and forced labor. In his book, All the Pasha’s Men, Khaled Fahmy makes clear the reason behind Muhammad ‘Ali’s hesitation to enlist Egyptians: he was worried that training the peasants on how to use weapons, and incorporating them into the army, might fuel their ambition, which would threaten the Turkish ruling class’s hold on power. He was also concerned that conscription would have a negative effect on agricultural production, the main source of revenue at the time that allowed Muhammad ‘Ali to accumulate enough wealth and modernize the army.
Alongside the modernization of the army, Muhammad ‘Ali continued building state institutions, from schools, to hospitals, to museums—all designed to serve the army and attend to its needs. For example, the purpose of the first vaccination program in Egypt, which was against smallpox, was to maintain the citizens’ health with the sole purpose of making them eligible for military service. It was on this basis that the modern Egyptian state was founded.
The king is at the center, and around him is the army—built on the backs of constantly derided conscripts. Then come the state institutions whose primary purpose is to serve this army. Outside this circle lurk vermin and common folk who constitute the majority of the Egyptian population.
Egyptians resisted conscription from the very beginning. They escaped the governor’s soldiers and inflicted injuries upon themselves, sometimes maiming themselves by cutting off their index fingers for instance—in an effort not to get conscripted. But the train of modernity moved ahead to the sound of marches, military music, and the literature of national identity, transforming the army’s place in Egyptian consciousness from an instrument of oppression and domination to the embodiment of an imagined collective identity, eternally monopolizing the definition of patriotism.
Muhammad ‘Ali’s fears came true: the first violent uprising that threatened his dynasty’s reign was led by Ahmad ‘Urabi, an officer in the Egyptian army of peasant (fallah) stock. He rose through the ranks and eventually demanded equality between Egyptian and Turkish colonels. Then, in the 1952 Revolution, the Egyptian peasants in the army once again revolted, ending the reign of Muhammad ‘Ali’s dynasty.
Starting with the rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the army expanded its conscription efforts. But this time around, military service became a badge of honor, masculinity, nationalism, muhallabiyya, words that form the foundations of the propaganda of Egyptian tyranny and brutality. As such, the gap grew between the conscripted soldiers who came from various social classes and the officers who were picked at the age of 16 to join the Military Academy, isolated from the rest of society and groomed to become the leaders of this army.
In his eloquent book Diaries of an Egyptian Soldier at the Suez Canal Front, Ahmad Hajji describes “the situation during the war before 1973, whereby officers drank beer while soldiers brewed the same tea bag several times.”
The army, which was Muhammad ‘Ali’s instrument for governance and expansion, positioned itself to replace the king, reigning according to the age-old Egyptian traditions dating back to the establishment of the Egyptian kingdom during pharaoh Narmer’s time (3200 BC). The military leaders detached themselves from the people and established their own private housing units, cities, clubs, and hospitals. Using the surplus production from its commercial activities following the 1973 War, the military institution further cemented its grip on power. It continued to expand its use of conscripts as the main labor force in its institutions, paying them extremely low wages and granting them no labor rights. It thus became common to see young soldiers manning military-owned kiosks, selling fish and shrimp in Egyptian markets.
In parallel, beginning in the seventies, recruitment for the Central Security Forces began to target demographics with least access to culture and education, drawing mainly on young men living in abject poverty, many of whom were illiterate. These men spend three years in Central Security Forces camps situated on the border of various Egyptian regions and governorates, ready to suppress any potential protest or revolt –a veritable striking force against their fellow citizens.
This regime, along with the lifestyle that consisted in idolizing the nation-state as defined by the military institution in Egypt since the fifties, was seriously threatened by the January 25 Revolution. This shake up didn’t result in the dismantling of the military regime or of the centrality of the army or, God forbid, of conscription itself. But it did allow us to imagine alternative models of communal life and coexistence based on respect for individual rights and freedoms rather than an admiration for the prestige of the military and state institutions. The January Revolution allowed us to imagine a life without coercion, where Egyptians can enjoy freedom and equality rather than be categorized according to their military ranks.
The military was quick to regain control in Egypt after 2014, but the challenge it faced was that it could no longer employ old nationalist tropes in its discourse. The specter of the ideas and models that the January Revolution inspired continue to disturb the Egyptian government to this day. As for Egypt’s position within the world order, it has been completely altered.
The current Egyptian regime has neither the ease nor the boldness of Gamal Abdel Nasser to be able to create outside enemies like the U.S. and Israel to justify internal oppression. Therefore, the solution was to turn the army against the people, to designate the people as an enemy and as a destructive force that could be exploited to destroy “the Egyptian state.”
In 2013, before becoming president, ‘Abdelfattah al-Sisi told the Egyptian journalist Yasser Rizk that since his youth, he had unexplainable dreams and visions that would eventually come true. He said, “I stopped talking about the dreams and visions in the last seven or eight years, or since 2006. But I always had dreams and visions in which I saw a lot of things that later happened, while no one could explain them 35 years ago.”
Al-Sisi enters a state of revelation and starts recounting some of his dreams to Rizk, “I saw myself in a dream many years ago, 35 years ago, raising a sword on which the phrase ‘La ilah illa Allah’ (‘no god but God’) was written in red.” Rizk interrupts him, “‘No god but God’ in red.” Al-Sisi confirms, “In red, yes.”
As for the second dream, it is more obscure. In the dream there was “an Omega watch on my hand with a green star on it, it was really big. People ask me, ‘what does it mean that you’re the one who has this watch?!’ I told them that this watch is in my name, it’s ‘Omega’ and I’m ‘Abad-fattah’ (‘Eternal-fattah’). The dream combines Omega with worldliness with ‘Abdelfattah.” As for the final dream, it is more honest. He says, “I dreamt that I was speaking with [Anwar] Sadat, and he told me, ‘I knew that I would become President,’ and I told him, ‘And I know that I will become President.’”
These dreams emerged from a leaked audio recording that was never supposed to be published. In the recording, al-Sisi confirms that he is telling Yasser Rizk his visions “off the record.” What struck me in the recording were al-Sisi’s pauses, serenity, and joy in his own self-confidence. Had I dreamt any of these dreams, I thought, I would’ve considered them nightmares. What is exhilarating about seeing yourself holding a sword with a “red” inscription?
In these dreams, al-Sisi appears to be rising above the people, detached from them. As is written in the Arabic lexicon Lisan al-‘Arab: “Everything detached from people [mustawhish ‘an al-nas] is beastly [wahshiyy], and everything that is not close to the people is beastly.”
“Beast” as an epithet (wahsh, pl. wuhush) can also be used positively, as a sign of virility, strength, and bravery. Describing soldiers as “beasts” [wuhush] means that they are capable of terrorizing the enemy. The process of conscription and combat training in Egypt boasts about transforming the recruit into a beast.
It is 2021. Armies around the world compete against one another through brainpower, advanced weaponry, drones, and hacking units able to attack and destroy rival countries’ computer networks. With the exception of Egypt where, every year, the government holds on to what is known as “military parades,” often organized for national occasions or when a new cohort graduates from the Military and Police Academies.
Since the eighties up until now, these parades have looked the same. Young, recently graduated officers showcase their skills such as eating snakes and other wild animals, jumping through rings of fire like circus performers, fist-fighting, and wrestling. In the last couple of years, the Police Academy’s graduation ceremony featured a rather odd performance: over a hundred buffed graduates paraded topless with their bodies drenched in oil, glistening and accentuating their muscles. They were standing on the roofs of SUVs like mummified statues as they passed by the president and generals’ stand. People commented online on photo and video documentation of such performances in various ways, but the recurring word used to describe these men was “beasts” [wuhush]. The army is the factory of men, as they say, the incubator of beasts. It is the machine that you enter as you dream of protecting your country and raising your people’s flag; and after attaining years of success inside the institution and reaching the highest of ranks, your dream becomes a sword dripping with blood—with ‘No god but God’ inscribed on it—and a $50,000 Omega watch.
The kid with a child’s brain was finally moved from our prison, but waves of new military prisoners kept coming in, some of whom were no older than 20 years old. It was customary that when a new group of them entered the cell, we would donate some of what we had—sugar, tea, bread—as extra provisions of sorts since they usually came to prison with neither money nor food.
Given their state of destitution, it is easy for them to get recruited by many of the groups operating in the prison—Islamic groups and terrorist organizations tend to be the quickest. They incorporate them into their groups and share food and drinks with them. They take possession of their minds with “God said x” and “the Prophet said y.” The kids feel appreciated and cared for under the wings of their God-loving brothers who then direct their anger in whatever direction they want.
The crime of avoiding conscription is a blot on each kid’s record after he leaves prison. As a result, he cannot get a job, neither in government nor in the private sector, his record always showing his status as a former felon. Consequently, his only option is to retire to the lowest of social classes, take the path of criminality, or throw himself into the arms of a terrorist organization that extends a helping hand beyond his stay in prison. In this way, if the beast is not produced in the army, he is produced in prison.
In a poor country like Egypt lacking in natural resources, the only source of wealth is the labor force, or human capital. But in the regime of the beast, and under the administration of barbarism, this force must be transformed into little beasts that can be tamed and controlled by a larger beast. To be human is more dangerous than to be a beast.
Translation: Tom Abi Samra
Shafiqa and Mitwali, dir. Ali Badrakhan (Egypt, 1979).
سجلات ديوان المعية السنية، الخطاب رقم 145، من السجل الثاني، من القسم الخامس. الخطاب مؤرخ بـ 25 جمادى الأول/ 1237/ 18 فبراير 1822 (دار الوثائق المصرية).
In Arabic, Abdelfattah (Sisi’s name) and Abad-elfattah sound similar. The latter translates to “Eternal-fattah.”