Imagine a bearded ultra-Orthodox man, a Christian Arab, and a Bedouin, all standing side by side in military formation. They receive the same pay, serve an equal term of duty, and sleep in the same barracks. Think I’m crazy? What may sound like fantasy is actually a daily reality here in the Middle East, but it’s not happening where you think.
In Egypt, conscription is mandatory for all citizens. It doesn’t matter if you are a devout Muslim, a Coptic Christian from the Delta, or a Nubian from the south: Every male is required to serve between one and three years of national service.
As with its friend up north, Egpyt’s military culture is embedded into everyday life. Throngs of fresh-faced men in green army fatigues are commonly seen rushing onto trains or parading through the street. High-ranking military officials also dominate the upper economic and political echelons of society. All three of the Egypt’s last presidents rose from military positions to leadership.
As in Israel, the military in Egypt occupies a unique place in the national imagination and in national politics. Unlike Egypt, however, Israel has a segregated conscription policy that exacerbates social divisions and lends fuel to critics who would charge that Israel is an illiberal society.
The creation of the new “unity” government with Likud and Kadima, and the upcoming August renewal date of the Tal Law have propelled the issue of military culture and conscription to the forefront of the political debate.
With all the obfuscating, the simplicity of the issue is often ignored. Israel, which purports to be a liberal society, exempts a huge percentage of its population from its military, a structure it claims to be its great equalizer. Yet haredi Jews and Arabs, two huge pillars of Israeli society, are exempted form military service.
The obvious hypocrisy has generated much debate, and there is hope that the new government will be powerful enough to break the deadlock and change the law. Shaul Mofaz recently called the Tal Law “a moral stain on Israeli society,” and promised that by July 31, “a team from Kadima would lead new legislation where the message is one law for everyone.” Commentators like David Horovitz have also displayed optimism, calling it a “genuine opportunity” to change the ruling.
Although many are optimistic that the Tal Law will in fact be revised, the weak foundations of the new government may actually produce a watered-down revision of the bill. Perhaps a few pearls of wisdom may be found by looking to Israel’s neighbor down south.
Egypt arguably suffers from sharper ethnic and religious tensions than Israel. Last year, 23 people were killed after a bomb exploded outside a church on Christmas Eve, while another 28 were killed in riots at Maspero following the demolition of a church in the south. In addition to Muslim-Christian tension, the arbitrary roundups of “collaborator” Bedouins in the Sinai and the increasing secularist and Islamist tension all add fuel to the fire.
Yet when I’ve spoken to Egyptians, they make it clear that these sectarian concerns do not extent to the military. One Muslim Brotherhood activist I spoke with was confused by my incessant questioning on the subject. As we discussed the phenomenon (as I originally viewed it) of Christians and Muslims serving side by side, he remarked, “Naturally, they are Egyptian, right?”
Obviously there is room for improvement in Egypt. There are no Coptic members in the country’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), and Christians and Bedouins rarely rise to positions of leadership. But including them in the military has never been an issue of debate, and stands as a testament to the power of a single, plain, and unequivocal law regarding conscription. The Egyptian constitution currently reads, “Defense of the motherland is a sacred duty, and obligatory in accordance of the law.”
Perhaps Netanyahu would be advised to think twice before he makes his usual comparison about “Israel being the only place in the region that _______ (fill in the blank).” Military conscription is far more equitable in Egypt, and in the long uphill battle ahead, the lesson from Egypt is that any form of compromise on the equality of conscription is unjust and counterproductive.
We shouldn’t forget that compromise was the catalyst for the current problem. This law, which now exempts over ten percent of the population, actually began as a simple gesture for “400 exemplary yeshiva students.” Any new concession or half-measure will most certainly be another failure.
Despite the new sense of optimism, I remain skeptical about the incoming coalition’s commitment to this issue. A government created with the goal of political longevity, and not moral principle, might not be in the best position to tackle such a contentious issue. I hope I’m wrong.