Maikel Nabil, the atheist, pro-Israel Egyptian writer who was released from prison today, was right all along.
- By Max StrasserMax Strasser is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Prior to joining FP, he lived and worked in Cairo from 2009 to 2012 and was the news editor at Egypt Independent, an English-language newspaper. He has been a freelance writer, covering everything from the fishing business in Turkey to international arms fairs in London to Islamist militancy on the Egypt-Gaza border. His writing has appeared online or in print in The Nation, The New Statesman, The London Review of Books, Foreign Affairs, The Atlantic, Newsweek, and elsewhere. Max is a proud New Jersey native and has a BA in History from Oberlin College and an MSc in International Political Economy from the London School of Economics.
CAIRO – In a country that has seen its fair share of polarizing figures since the fall of octogenarian autocrat Hosni Mubarak, Maikel Nabil Sanad might be Egypt’s ultimate iconoclast. The 26-year-old veterinary school graduate hails from the country’s Coptic Christian minority, supports secularism, loudly proclaims his atheism, and condemns the Coptic pope’s hypocrisy. He calls himself a feminist and is open to gay rights. And in a country where support for Israel is the third rail of politics for mainstream politicians and street activists alike, Nabil proudly self-identifies as "pro-Israel."
But on one issue, Nabil’s convictions have become steadily less controversial. In the revolution’s earliest days, he criticized the army’s political takeover in Cairo. While most Egyptians were still chanting, "The Army and the people are one hand," Nabil cautioned that the military was no ally of the protesters — a warning that, after a year that has seen a stalled democratic transition and over 12,000 Egyptians sentenced in military tribunals, appears remarkably prescient.
Nabil’s attacks on the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) led to his arrest on March 28 on charges of "insulting the military." For more than 130 days of his detention, Nabil went on a hunger strike to protest his treatment — living on juice and milk, at times coming close to death. For months, he was kept in solitary confinement in a one meter by one meter cell and, even after he was transferred to a group cell in Tora Prison in December, the conditions were still cramped and unsanitary, according to his younger brother Mark.
On Saturday, SCAF chief Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi pardoned Nabil, along with 1,959 other prisoners subjected to military trials. Adel al-Mursi, the head of the military prosecution, said that the decision to pardon the detainees was taken to commemorate the revolution’s anniversary. He was released on Jan. 24, flashing the "V" for victory signs to photographers as he marched out of prison.
While Nabil’s release was greeeted with joy by the Egyptian activist communisty, he has not always been embraced by Cairo’s revolutionaries — to say nothing of Egypt’s broader population. He was arrested at his home in the Ain Shams neighborhood of northern Cairo for writing a blog post on March 8 titled "The army and people wasn’t ever one hand." The blog post describes how the army worked constantly to "circumvent the demands of the revolution," exhaustively listing examples of the military’s torture of activists, its attempts to forcibly evict protesters from Tahrir Square, and its "passive neutrality" during attacks on demonstrators by thugs. "In fact, the revolution has so far managed to get rid of the dictator but not the dictatorship," Nabil wrote.
Such views were decidedly out of the mainstream in the revolution’s early days. On Jan. 28, when the Egyptian military deployed across Cairo, most people greeted the men in khaki and camouflage as saviors because, unlike the police, they did not attack protesters. Young men posed for photographs in front of tanks, families asked soldiers to hold their babies, old women kissed uniformed military police on the cheek.
Nabil never bought into the "one hand" rhetoric. On Jan. 30, he went to Tahrir Square carrying a sign that read, "We refuse to allow the army to steal the people’s revolution."
While most activists saw Hosni Mubarak and his cronies as their primary target, Nabil, a pacifist, bore a grudge against the Egyptian armed forces that stretched back before the revolution. In November 2010, he was briefly arrested for his campaign against compulsory conscription. "I hope that the day comes when the Egyptian military goes back to its barracks and to stop interfering in politics, so Egypt would be transformed into a civilian country without powers of military people on civilians," he wrote in October 2010.
The past year’s events have brought many Egyptians around to Nabil’s point of view. In addition to the widespread use of military trials, the military’s security forces have killed scores of civilians and injured hundreds more since February. The political transition has also been ill-defined and characterized by backroom deals, as the military junta looks to entrench its power and prevent oversight of their activities. This month, Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and a leading voice of the revolution, withdrew from the presidential race in protest of the military’s grip on power.
Egypt’s military leaders sought to quell public discontent by cracking down hard on its most implacable critics — and Nabil, though hardly the only activist raising concerns about the junta’s rule, made the perfect target because of his idiosyncratic views.
"The regime before and after the revolution always functioned with setting examples. So they set an example and it was very astute on their part to take this guy who they knew no one would support," Aalam Wassef, an activist who organized calls for Nabil’s release, told me a few days before news came that his sentence would be commuted.
Egyptian state media and SCAF statements pushed a narrative that the persistent protests were part of a foreign plot, and the protesters were no longer the true revolutionaries that took to the streets during the first 18 days. "Maikel was the dream case," Wassef said. "He was an activist, he was an atheist, he was supportive of Israel. They didn’t even need to put any subtitles."
His thoughts on Israel also did little to win him much support among Cairo’s activist community — a development Wassef called "disappointing." Nabil’s case was, for the most part, not talked about for months. Alaa Abd El Fattah, a prominent activist who became a cause célèbre after being arrested in October, has energetically rallied support in favor of Nabil’s release. However, when asked on Twitter how revolutionaries would welcome Nabil once he was free, he responded on Jan. 21, "[H]e is a zionist, my support for him ends when he is finally released."
Over time, many activists did warm to Nabil’s cause. In December, as Nabil escalated his hunger strike, Wassef and others launched a campaign to gather support for him, organizing a march in Tahrir Square that saw more than 1,000 people attend.
"He’s courageous to express his ideas that are unacceptable to the extremists," a friend of Maikel’s, an unemployed 24-year-old who blogs under the pseudonym Kefaya Punk, said. "Some people, because of the propaganda against him, think he’s the kind of guy who wants to show off, that he says his ideas to become famous. But he’s not." (Kefaya Punk doesn’t want his real name published. "I’m not as courageous as Maikel," he told me over cups of anise tea at a sidewalk café in downtown Cairo.)
Prison has done nothing to slow Nabil’s pen. Throughout the past 10 months, he has composed dozens of statements — written in his thoughtful, at times lawyerly, style — that were smuggled out and posted on the Internet. His brother Mark, who often speaks on Maikel’s behalf, said it is a secret how the statements made it out of prison. The statements ranged from scattered "fragments," covering everything from vegetarianism to Lisa Simpson, to longer meditations on Israel and Palestine or letters to SCAF members.
In one dispatch from prison, Nabil addresses the age-old issue of balancing an individual’s rights against the good of society — a particularly meaningful issue for someone like himself, whose views are often at odds with those of most Egyptians. "In my lectures on liberalism I always said that if the individual was at odds with society, as liberals we should take the side of the individual against society," he wrote.
While Nabil’s stay in prison has ended, the same cannot be said for the more than 10,000 other Egyptians jailed under the questionable authority of Egypt’s military tribunals. Early on the morning of Jan. 22, roughly 20 of Nabil’s friends and supporters — reacting to reports that Nabil’s release was imminent — gathered outside the ragged walls of the Tora Prison complex on the southern outskirts of Cairo. Mark Nabil, shivering against the cold wind, answered incessant calls from prison officials, human rights lawyers, and journalists. The crowd wore stickers bearing the slogan he carried to Tahrir almost a year ago: "We refuse the military’s theft of the people’s revolution."
"When we were saying the army and the people are one hand, Maikel was writing the opposite," said Marina Kamel, a 25-year-old young woman waiting outside the prison who has never met Nabil personally. "I came to say thank you for the information."