The Doha-based Al Jazeera television channel and the Qatari government continue to face rebuke in Egypt following Sunday night’s broadcast of a documentary on the conditions of conscripts in Egypt’s Armed Forces.
While Egyptian media have been the principal figures leading the response, nationalist hashtags supporting the military surfaced on social media and members of Egypt’s Parliament called for an end to diplomatic relations with Qatar.
Anger toward the film, titled The Soldiers: Story of conscription in the Egyptian Armed Forces, began on Friday with the release of its trailer, which includes reenactment footage of soldiers crawling through a field in their undergarments.
The film consists of the testimonies of former military conscripts regarding the abuse they faced while enlisted. Many said that the training they received was futile and did not prepare them for combat.
Some of the media coverage became more incendiary on Monday, following the broadcast. The privately owned al-Bawaba newspaper’s Managing Editor Mohamed al-Baz wrote an article titled “A look at our mentally ill Qatari brother,” contending that Qatar’s jealousy of Egypt’s size and significance prompted it to betray its fellow Arab country to conspire with their common enemies.
In the same issue, Al-Bawaba columnist Nashat al-Deihy wrote an opinion article that begins with the sentence, “The prince is gay and his mother is a prostitute.” He proceeds to call Qatar, “The island of gays and prostitutes.”
Several daily newspapers also published accounts on Monday of reporters who were allowed to visit military training camps, using phrasing such as “the den of lions” and “the factory of saviors” for what the Al Jazeera documentary portrayed as places of abuse.
The privately owned Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper published a cartoon on Monday depicting Qatari nationals watching the film and asking one another, “What is a military?” a reference to the country’s smaller military. This follows a cartoon in Sunday’s issue featuring an Egyptian struggling to point out where Qatar is on the map due to its small size.
However, these gestures are only the most recent in a series of comments issued by a broad range of figures across Egyptian society in the days leading up to the broadcast.
During a telephone interview on Youssef al-Husseini’s “Sada al-Muhtaramon” (Respectable Gentlemen) on Sunday, Foreign Minister spokesperson Ahmed Abu Zeid stated that it was clear that the film aimed to destabilize public confidence in the Armed Forces, a goal he asserted it would not accomplish. While Egypt’s media could address the claims advanced by the documentary, the Egyptian government, he continued, would not respond to a news channel.
Egypt’s Grand Mufti Shawky Allam also affirmed support for Egypt’s military, saying it stands like a “proud mountain” and would not be affected by the slander propagated by partisan media platforms.
Amr Adib took to the air on Sunday night, saying that Qatar’s military is dependent on foreign elements and that the country does not understand the structure of Egypt’s Armed Forces. “Al-Ashera Masa’an” (10 pm) host Wael al-Ebrashy argued that outsiders “may not understand that compulsory military service in Egypt is a national and humanitarian duty.”
Lamis al-Hadidy, the host of “Hona al-Asema” (Here’s the Capital) appealed to how conscription unifies Egyptians from every class, religion and race in the service of a nationalist endeavor. “Our military is a great national army. It is not a mercenary army. It is an army whose members come from every household in Egypt. Sacrifice, self-denial and glory are the slogans of the Egyptian solider.”
Regime supporters rallied around the hashtag “We will beat Tamim with a shoe” ahead of the screening on Sunday, a reference to the Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. Ahmed Moussa is reported to have promoted use of the hashtag on his show “‘Ala Mas’ouleyety” (My Responsibility).
A photo depicting a military boot over Tamim’s head and bearing the caption, “Al Jazeera is under the boot of the Egyptian military” was widely circulated on social media. Another hashtag called on users to “Tweet in support of the Egyptian Armed Forces.”
— #احلام_مصريه (@A7lamahmed2) November 26, 2016
A lawsuit was reportedly filed against Emad Eldin al-Sayed, the documentary’s director and an Egyptian national, on Sunday, claiming that he had defamed Egypt’s Armed Forces. Other media outlets reported that Sayed is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and an agent of Qatar. The director has denied these claims.
In an interview with the Huffington Post Arabic, Sayed explained that he is not attempting to tarnish the image of Egypt’s military. To the contrary, he told the Qatari-funded site that the “film is biased in favor of the Armed Forces,” adding that he is not opposed to military conscription.
“The film does not reject conscription. Rather, it discusses frequently-occurring incidents and accounts that are known to the Egyptian populace, including the punishment that conscripts face while enlisted, along with the exploitation of conscripted soldiers in labor markets outside the scope of military service.”
Sayed also told the Qatari-funded SasaPost news outlet that much of the documentary draws from footage either filmed by hidden cameras or leaked by conscripts who had captured it while on duty. However, other scenes feature reenactments based on testimony and archival documents.
Using the hashtag “These are Egyptian soldiers,” Armed Forces spokesperson Brigadier General Mohamed Samir disseminated footage that emphasized the dignity of soldiers during Armed Forces training exercises.
Security forces raided Al Jazeera’s offices in Egypt during the June 30 revolution. The channel’s employees have been banned from operating in Egypt, with the last affiliate channel, “Mubasher Misr” (Live from Egypt), being shut down in December 2014.
Egyptian police arrested and jailed four members of the Al Jazeera English channel, claiming that the four used rooms in the Marriott Hotel in Cairo to meet with Muslim Brotherhood members. They were charged with broadcasting news that could harm national security and disseminating false information. The ensuing legal proceedings against Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste, Baher Mohamed became known as the “Marriott Cell” case. Greste, an Australian national, was deported in February 2015, and Fahmy, the Egyptian-Canadian bureau chief, and Mohamed, an Egyptian correspondent, were released from jail in September of the same year.
Al Jazeera, which is funded by the Qatari government, is widely perceived in Egypt to serve as the mouthpiece for the Muslim Brotherhood.
Two Al Jazeera Arabic reporters – Abdallah al-Shamy and Mohamed Badr – were arrested on August 14, 2013 during the violent dispersal of the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in, which resulted in the deaths of several hundreds of supporters of former President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Military conscription in Egypt lasts between one and three years, depending on level of education. Conscription is limited to able-bodied males between the ages of 18 and 30 years old and is pursuant to the completion of formal education. Conscripts with little or no formal education are often drafted into the Central Security Forces and typically serve for three years under the auspices of the Interior Ministry rather than the Armed Forces.