Omar Shehata

A brief glimpse at what's been happening recently in Egypt

From Omar's notebook.

There have been some recent developments in Egypt that are simultaneously tragic & somewhat hilarious. They are a bit hard to follow from the outside (especially if you don't speak Arabic), so I wanted to summarize my own account here. This will be a biased and incomplete perspective as someone who:

What's the big news?

The Egyptian government announced on July 27th, 2023 a new ad hoc law: pay $5,000 & you can skip the military conscription.

Military service is generally required for all male citizens, and lasts between 1-3 years.

The problem(s) with this news

The article below was the first source I found that broke this news. It didn't link to any official government announcement. It just explained it, and then had this embedded, stretched out screenshot of the official announcement:

Ok, so I think: let me go check the official Ministry of Foreign Affairs government website to confirm. The website was down (and remained down for the next few days).

I ask my mom if she heard any other news about this. She says no, but that I should try the website again later, since "the power may be out at the government building right now".


(apparently Egypt has been dealing with rolling blackouts across the country for 1-3 hours every day)

I'm finally able to confirm the news is legit by looking at the official Facebook page of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

There's still quite a bit that's fishy about this:

Yes, it 100% sounds like a scam. But no, it's legit (re-confirmed later by TV announcements).

People's reactions

The sentiment is generally positive. A lot of people are praising it as a win-win: it's a way for the government to get foreign currency it is in dire need of (hence the rolling power outages?) and it also allows Egyptian citizens who are living abroad & haven't completed their service to come back home without fear of being stuck & unable to leave the country.

The most common criticism I saw was that: $5,000 is way too much money. The average annual salary in Egypt is ~$3,600. A lot of people were commenting that "not everyone who lives abroad is rich" and that some who live abroad are just students so don't really have an income.

There was some interesting ideological criticism: some saying it's unconstitutional to have a law that only applies to people abroad. Plus that it's just unfair for both (1) people in Egypt who want can afford this & but aren't allowed to pay (2) you're now just forcing people who can't afford it to give up 1-3 years of their life in military service & giving rich kids a pass.

The recurring running joke around all this is that the government is in such poor state that it needs to kind of extort citizens abroad for money.

There was one parody/fake announcement people were sharing that I think summarizes the tragedy & hilarity of the situation quite well:

The Egyptian government announces it is researching the legality of cutting power off Egyptian citizens living abroad for 1-3 hours a day unless they pay up, for the good of the nation.

What I think

It's great news for me, personally. I'm currently unable to renew my passport due to the military service requirement. It seems really cheap in exchange for 1-3 years of your life, especially if you're working any job in the US.

As all this is happening I can't stop thinking about the fact that Facebook acted as the primary source to get verified news from the government. This is something I think we take for granted in the US. FB & Twitter provide kind of essential infrastructure for dissemination of information here. It feels almost essential for democracy: it's a trusted tool the government relies on, but the government importantly cannot censor it (at least the Egyptian gov doesn't seem successful at pressuring big tech to do so like some other countries).

Facebook is also how I found out what happens if you avoid military service completely (& illegally), which is what I was planning to do. What happens is you fly back home after you are 30 years old (that's past the age cut off for service), you get a lawyer, go to a military court, you plead guilty & pay $500. And finally, for your crime of military desertion you are barred from running for parliament. All of this is what you skip when paying this new $5000 thing.

I didn't know any of this before because (1) none of it is actually written down anywhere (2) I didn't know anyone who went through this process, and neither did anyone in my family.

At the time of writing, I haven't paid up yet because I'm waiting for the form to open on August 14 & that's when we'll learn what the actual process is like.

Update - September 9th

This is how the government announced that your payment was accepted & you were now officially done with military service, a screenshot of a list of full names posted publicly on Facebook:

This was the first batch. The second batch, which was the one I was in, was posted as a Google doc:

Someone sent me a link to this Google doc, which was very suspicious on its own. It doesn't link to any official government source. It's just a random Google doc!!!