Al Jazeera film critical of Egyptian army strains Egypt-Qatar ties further

‘The Soldiers’ has been broadly received as an accurate portrayal of life for military conscripts in Egypt

Gulf News

Cairo: An Egyptian soldier crawls across hot sand in his underwear while his comrades stand at attention. Other soldiers say they are subjected to almost constant verbal and physical abuse and ordered to run personal errands for their superiors.

Those accusations and images, part of a documentary broadcast this week, would have been provocative enough on their own. But the programme was broadcast by Al Jazeera, the television network owned by the Qatari government, and it has inflamed already tense relations between Qatar and Egypt.

The film, titled “The Soldiers,” was also viewed nearly 450,000 times in its first 24 hours on YouTube. It features interviews with Egyptian soldiers detailing what they say are the inhumane conditions that conscripts are forced to work under, and it accuses the army of failing to train its troops properly and feeding them bad food.

Within two hours of the documentary’s release on Sunday, a spokesman for Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was denouncing it on Egyptian television.

“It’s obviously poorly done work that is trying to shake the confidence of the Egyptian citizen in his army,” said the spokesman, Ahmad Abu Zaid.

Neither Al Jazeera nor a spokesman for the Egyptian military could be reached for comment on Monday. Mohammad Saleh, head of the media office at Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, declined to respond to Abu Zaid’s comments, saying, “We have nothing to do with this.”

Emad Al Deen Al Syed, the Egyptian journalist who spent a year making the film, dismissed accusations that his work was politically motivated.

“If it were intended to politically annoy Egypt, it would have talked about the corruption of the military leadership, assuming it really exists,” Al Syed said on Monday in a phone interview from Doha, the Qatari capital, where he is based. “The film is just very biased towards the soldiers. It just doesn’t want soldiers to die.”

“The Soldiers” has been broadly received as an accurate portrayal of life for military conscripts in Egypt. Criticism of the military’s training programmes has been growing as a war against Islamist militants in the Sinai Peninsula drags into its fourth year, and tales of conscript abuse are common.

However, some Egyptians rejected the idea that the film was a work of journalism, and not political point-scoring.

“If you act surprised that a soldier’s dignity is degraded in the military, then you are playing dumb,” Mina Mansi, a political activist in the coastal city of Alexandria, wrote in a widely shared Facebook post. “And if you think Al Jazeera released this film now to appease their professional conscience, then you are acting dumb.”

The feud between Egypt, the most populous Arab country, and Qatar, a wealthy Gulf nation, began after the Egyptian military deposed and jailed the president, Mohammad Mursi, in 2013 amid mass protests against his rule. Mursi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, was one of Qatar’s Islamist allies in the region. In June, he was sentenced to life in prison on charges of spying for Qatar’s royal family.

Shortly after his fall, Egypt’s military-dominated government began cracking down on political activists, particularly Islamists and journalists, including reporters working for Al Jazeera. The channel — generally seen in Egypt as a mouthpiece for the Brotherhood — is so hated by the government that Egypt’s foreign minister, Sameh Shoukri, sometimes personally removes its microphone from news conferences.

Such moves have chilled ties with Qatar, whose support for political Islam has also alienated some of its neighbours.

Al Syed, the filmmaker, said police complaints had already been filed against him.

“I hope I could come back one day,” he said. “But now, after these reports, I’d be too concerned.”

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