After Fleeing the Army, One Egyptian Soldier Witnessed a Massacre
Draft resisters go on the run to avoid military service
It was around 4 a.m. when Hamada received the text message he had been dreading. “We’re coming. Get out.”
The message came from a number he did not recognize, but he knew who had sent it and what it meant. Before Hamada had deserted from the army a month prior, a friend and fellow conscript had promised to tell him if there was to be an attack. This text message was the signal.
The army was preparing to assault Rabaa Square, where Hamada–his name is a pseudonym to protect his identity–was camped together with 85,000 protesters. Hundreds of people were about to die.
The day was Aug. 14, 2013.
Hamada’s troubles began July 3, the day Gen. Abdel Fattah Al Sisi removed former president Mohammed Morsi from power. Millions rejoiced, declared Sisi a national hero and hailed the turnover as Egypt’s second revolution.
But from where Hamada sat in the Obour training compound in northeastern Cairo, it looked an awful lot like a coup.
By the time Sisi ended his announcement, the battle lines had already been drawn–you were either with the armed forces and the good of Egypt or you were against it. And that’s how Hamada, dressed in khaki camouflage, found himself on the wrong side of the line.
Hamada comes from the village of Abu Rawwash, an under-served agrarian community about 20 kilometers from Cairo’s center. Forgotten and neglected by the state, the Muslim Brotherhood had come to play an important role in the community. The religious organization operated schools, provided handouts to farmers in hard times, fed orphaned children and ran hospitals.
As a result, when the Brotherhood finally had its chance at the presidency in 2012, many in Abu Rawwash—including Hamada—were delighted. What was more, Hamada didn’t just believe in the Brotherhood, he believed in Morsi. He was Egypt’s first civilian president and a fellow devout Muslim. But on July 3, 2013, Hamada, as a soldier in the Egyptian army, inadvertently deposed him.
Hamada did not join the army by choice. The Egyptian constitution requires all men between the ages of 18 and 30 to serve up to three years in the military. Until he performed his service, Hamada would be prohibited from traveling abroad and would have a difficult time finding work.
So in March, he presented himself to the conscription office in Giza, went through a series of physical and psychological exams and was told to report for a month of training in Obour beginning June 1.
The most reliable estimates of the Egyptian army’s conscript force range between 300,000 and 350,000 soldiers on active duty at any time—out of an estimated 450,000 troops. But most conscripts receive rudimentary training at best, according to Robert Springborg, a visiting professor at King’s College in London and an expert on Egypt’s military.
“[They receive] very little training. U.S. reports on training in the armored corps and the air force attest to this,” Springborg said. “The training is low level and erratic and results in extremely poor tank crews and pilots, for example.”
Before the 1970s, there were as many as 900,000 conscripts on active duty from across social classes, resulting in a much more well-rounded and competent military force, Springborg said. But after the Camp David accords in 1978–which required Egypt to scale back its military–the conscription laws changed so that university graduates were only required to serve one year, while their poorer and less-educated counterparts were required to serve three.
“Since the partial downsizing after Camp David, university educated youths have comprised a decreasing proportion of conscripts, so the quality has been dropping,” Springborg said. “Since conscripts are deployed to military enterprises, they lack the in-depth training necessary to maintain and operate sophisticated equipment.”
Hamada’s 30 days of training is a case in point, as he never once operated a firearm. “We ran, we did pushups, all kinds of exercises,” Hamada said. “But I never touched a gun. I’ve never touched a gun in my life.”
However, this wouldn’t stop Hamada and his platoon from being called into battle. The day after the military coup which overthrew Morsi, Hamada’s commanding officer brought in religious teachers from the Al-Azhar mosque to speak to them about the religious importance of duty to one’s country.
“They told us the people protesting in the streets and in Rabaa Square were traitors and terrorists,” Hamada said. “They told us we might be asked to attack them and if we were, we shouldn’t be afraid of killing them. They were infidels, they said, and we should kill them all.”
Hamada recoiled at this.
The “terrorists” in the streets were his neighbors and friends. He was on the wrong side and he needed to get out. He knew the penalty for deserting was a minimum of two years in prison, but felt he was better off in prison than with innocent blood on his hands.
On the night of July 4, Hamada took off his uniform, whispered his goodbyes and fled.
Massacre at Rabaa
Hamada went straight to Rabaa Square–since renamed Hisham Barakat Square after Egypt’s slain prosecutor general–a large intersection in Cairo’s middle class neighborhood of Nasser City, named for the prominent Rabaa Adaweya mosque.
By the time Hamada arrived on July 5, thousands of protesters from around the country had set up camp, vowing not to move until Morsi was restored to power. In the weeks that followed, Sisi repeatedly called on the protesters to disperse. On a few occasions, security forces made attempts to clear them out.
But the tents remained and the sit-in endured … until 6 a.m. on the morning of Aug. 14, 2013.
“They started moving in at 6 [a.m.], firing teargas, rubber bullets and live ammunition,” Hamada recalled. “They didn’t have respect for anyone–kids, old people, women.” He paused. “I saw people die. I saw their internal organs spilling out.”
Around 7 a.m., Hamada was shot in his left bicep. “There were bullets coming from everywhere,” he said. “I got hit all over by rubber bullets. And then I got a lead bullet in my arm.”
He made his way to the field hospital, now overflowing with carnage and death. His relatively minor arm wound was low on the priority list and he waited for hours for someone to tend to him. He then spent the rest of the day running from cover to cover, waiting for a chance to flee to safety.
“At one point, I spotted my commanding officer, my relative,” Hamada said. “I don’t think he saw me, but I know it was him. He was carrying a large gun and firing at people. I couldn’t have done that.”
The fighting finally subsided around 7 p.m. when security forces took control of the square, and Hamada was able to go home. By then, at least 1,000 civilians had been killed, according to Human Rights Watch. It was the bloodiest mass killing in modern Egyptian history.
“Numerous government statements and accounts from government meetings indicate that high-ranking officials knew that the attacks would result in widespread killings of protesters,” Human Rights Watch stated in its extensive report on the killings at Rabaa. “Indeed, in the single largest incident, the [Rabaa dispersal], the government anticipated and planned for the deaths of several thousand protesters.”
A life in hiding
Two years since the massacre, Hamada remains in hiding, a fugitive from the law.
He has managed to find work as a day laborer, doing landscaping and yard work for a ritzy development in 6th of October City, one of Cairo’s new-money satellite towns. His mother teases him about getting married and renting his own place, pretending his future is unaffected by his past. But Hamada knows he is only playing with time. All it would take is one random arrest for him to potentially spend the rest of his life behind bars.
“By now, deserting is the least of my worries,” Hamada said. “I would probably get two years in prison and a fine and that would be that. But I could also be charged with threatening national security, terrorism or treason. This scar betrays me.”
He pointed to his left bicep, the skin twisted and marred around the penny-sized bullet hole. “They will know I’ve been at protests. And for that … I know people who have been handed 20 year sentences or worse.”
The state has also taken to doling out death sentences en masse to its political prisoners, particularly those with supposed ties to the banned Muslim Brotherhood, officially declared a terrorist group in 2013.
“I’ll be on the run the rest of my life,” Hamada said. “I’ll face prison for the rest of my life. Even if I’m 60, even if I’m 100.”
Hamada is not alone. Since the revolution, two movements have spawned and grown rapidly in resistance to the mandatory military service. The first, Ikhlaa (roughly translated “desert”) is an online campaign encouraging young men to dodge the draft.
“You are a human, not a servant for the army. You are a free Egyptian, not a slave at the hand of the generals,” the group wrote on its official Facebook page.
Since its creation in October 2013, the Facebook page has grown to 16,000 likes and counting. Although there are no official numbers on the number of deserters, an army colonel with the Sinai command told Al-Monitor that “thousands” are finding ways of avoiding conscription. Like Hamada, they remain in hiding or—if they are fortunate—find ways to flee the country.
But a small number are making their desertion public. Led by liberal activist and blogger Maikel Nabil, the members of the No to Compulsory Military Service movement are openly refusing to serve in the military. Unlike Ikhlaa, whose motives involve a blend of religion, politics and outright anger, the driving force behind Nabil’s movement is simply pacifism.
“Ikhlaa hates the army. We don’t hate the army, we just hate war,” said Ahmed Hassan, the movement’s international media coordinator.
Nabil founded the movement in 2009 and later became the first Egyptian to request an exemption from the military as a conscientious objector. After a long and high-profile battle, attracting the attention of international human rights groups such as Amnesty International, War Resisters International and Human Rights Watch, the military finally granted Nabil an exemption in 2012.
Thirty more have since stood up and publicly demanded exemptions. While the group is far from its goal of making conscientious objection legal, it is making slow progress. In July, Egyptian defense minister Sedki Sobhi quietly granted exemptions to two of the group’s members.
“I think the government is trying to keep this quiet,” Hassan said. “When Maikel refused his service, he got so much support from the outside and the inside. It became a huge deal. They don’t want something like that to happen again.”
While the movement continues to try and raise local awareness through online campaigns and occasional street activism, its focus for now remains on garnering international support.
“We’ve tried to partner with local NGOs like AFTE and CIHRS, but they don’t want to get involved in this matter. I think they are afraid to fight the army,” Hassan said. “So we’re focusing on getting the international community involved. Maikel would have never gotten his exemption were it not for outside pressure.”
It’s no surprise the No to Compulsory Military Service movement has such few public backers. “A conscientious objector movement would be pilloried as treason,” Springborg said. “And since conscription provides employment for the poor, it is highly unlikely that large numbers would seek to avoid it, especially at a time of high youth unemployment.”
Etched in stone in Article 88 of the constitution, mandatory military service isn’t likely to disappear anytime soon. So for now, Hamada and the thousands like him will have to wait.
“I was proud of him for deserting,” Hamada’s mother said. “I would never want my son to fire on innocent people. Not ever. But I was also sad, so very, very sad. Because his future is gone now.”
She fell silent, holding her son’s gaze from across the room. “His future is gone.”