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Atheist and pro-Israel, Maikel Nabil tests free speech in Egypt

A year ago this week, Maikel Nabil became the first Egyptian blogger to be arrested solely for his opinion. Now released, he talks about his fight for one of the key principles of democracy.

By Correspondent / March 29, 2012

Maikel Nabil, unlike many protesters in Cairo, didn’t see the Army as the savior of Egypt’s revolution. He was imprisoned for detailing the military’s abuses of power after it took over from ousted leader Hosni Mubarak. He went on a hunger strike and was released in January.

Kristen Chick



Maikel Nabil's views are controversial in Egypt in almost every way – his open atheism, his support for gay rights, and especially his support for Israel.

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But it was his opposition to the military that made him the first Egyptian blogger to be imprisoned for his opinions after the uprising that overthrew former President Hosni Mubarak.

The rail-thin blogger, a pacifist, had become a thorn in the Egyptian Army's side well before Egyptians took to the streets en masse last year by publicly refusing mandatory military service.

He started a campaign against conscription on his blog, where he also posted poetry and nonpolitical musings.

Then, less than two months after the fall of Mr. Mubarak, the military arrested Mr. Nabil. His offense? Writing a post describing abuses by the military, which had stepped in to take power.

In the immediate wake of his arrest, which took place exactly a year ago, few defended Nabil or his right to freedom of expression – a central tenet of democracy. His case turned out to be a harbinger of a crackdown on free expression by Egypt's military rulers last year.

While Nabil was recently released after going on a hunger strike, some are worried that Egyptians' reluctance to defend the rights of unpopular figures like him will mean a slow but sure erosion of the right of free expression.

"The failure to respond immediately to cases like Maikel Nabil's early in the year in a sense set the stage for the military to keep tightening the public space there was for dissidence," says Heba Morayef, a researcher for Human Rights Watch. Now, she says, "there isn't a strong sense of the need to protect freedom of expression. And that's very dangerous going forward."

Warm and polite, with a degree in veterinary science

Born into a Coptic Christian family in Assiut, a city in southern Egypt, Nabil got a degree in veterinary science from a university there. He says he's not cut out for 9-to-5 office jobs, so he focused instead on writing, activism, and studies. He was studying for a postgraduate law degree at Cairo University, but missed his final exams while in prison.

He is warm and polite, but quick to challenge statements he disagrees with – such as the popular revolutionary chant, "The Army and the people are one hand."

The March 8, 2011, blog post that got him arrested was titled "The Army and the people were never one hand." In it, he made the case that the military never supported, much less saved, the Egyptian revolution, and he detailed their abuses.

By the time he was arrested on March 28, the military council that had promised to oversee a quick transition to an elected government had racked up a list of abuses, including subjecting thousands of civilians to military tribunals, forcing female protesters to submit to "virginity tests" that amounted to sexual assault, and beating and torturing protesters.

Military intelligence officers arrested him and charged him with insulting the military and publishing false information. The evidence against him was 73 screen shots of his blog and Facebook page.

It was a clear free-expression case. "I haven't done anything wrong. I haven't stolen anything, or killed anyone," says Nabil, recently released and wearing brand-new jeans and a hoodie sweatshirt. "I was arrested for my opinions."

His case drew little attention at first; Egyptians were still enamored of the military, which they saw as the savior of the revolution – in part because soldiers had not attacked protesters as the police had. Any protest against the military was, at the time, extremely controversial.


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