Dodging a Bullet
March 25, 2019
A soldier doll perched on the edge of a cake decorated like an Egyptian flag, but the cake was no display of patriotism. Bold capital letters on the cake read “CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR EXEMPTION.”
Military conscription has faded in much of the world, but it is on the rise across the Middle East and North Africa. Morocco became the eleventh country in the region to impose a draft in February 2019, with the first conscripts to report in the fall. Governments have mixed motives. While cheap labor is sometimes a factor—Egyptian conscripts earn just $22/month—governments are also looking to ease youth unemployment, improve job readiness, and cultivate a stronger sense of citizenship.
Yet, many states are struggling to get young men to report for duty. Last year, only 506 of the 31,000 Tunisians summoned for service showed up. Newspapers periodically report on the strategies young men employ to avoid conscription. Some stay in school for a decade, while others become intentionally obese. Some claim various birth defects, while others feign homosexuality. One young man reportedly grew his hair long and took up the study of Christian theology to win a religious exemption, while another had his father report him as kidnapped while he was home on leave.
Many potential draftees object to the miserable conditions for conscripts, and many also worry about the danger of entering war zones. Governments have jailed draft dodgers and digitized the conscription process to close loopholes. When shirking national duty is a cause for celebration and not shame, it is clear states have their work cut out for them.
This article is part of the CSIS Middle East Program series Mezze: Assorted Stories from the Middle East.