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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.

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But even after support began to wane for the military, many were still reluctant to rally around Nabil, whose views make him a highly unsympathetic character to most Egyptians.

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After getting attacked by another prisoner, enduring periods of solitary confinement, and being ordered to a psychiatric hospital in an apparent attempt to prove him insane, Nabil eventually went on a hunger strike.

"I felt I had to make something obvious and strong to make everyone realize there is an activist arrested in Egypt for his opinion, his conscience, and he needs your support," says the young man with an intense gaze. He was released in late January, one of nearly 2,000 civilians convicted in military courts who were pardoned in a bid to blunt protests on the anniversary of Egypt's revolution.

Deliberate and articulate, quoting Voltaire

As he recounts his imprisonment, Nabil at times struggles to find the right words, sometimes losing his train of thought as he sits in a downtown Cairo cafe. Since his release, he says, he has trouble concentrating. He sees strangers in the street and thinks he recognizes them. Yet Nabil is deliberate and articulate. He quotes Voltaire during an interview.

At the beginning of his imprisonment, mobilizing supporters was difficult, particularly because of his support for Israel.

When he says Israel's 2009 war in Gaza, which killed more than 1,000 Palestinians, was a war of self-defense, it arouses the kind of emotions in Egyptians that Americans might feel when someone defends Al Qaeda. Nabil doesn't expect them to agree, but the lack of support early on in his imprisonment for the right to express such ideas pained him.

"I don't ask them to love me. I don't ask them to believe what I'm believing in," says Nabil. "All I ask is that we respect human rights in Egypt, that we respect freedom of expression in Egypt."

Most Egyptians still trusted the military then, or were too afraid to speak out against it. Even the group No to Military Trials for Civilians debated whether to advocate for Nabil, said one member, over worry it would damage their cause. When it did launch a campaign and asked public figures and well-known activists to help, some refused. Getting local media to publicize his case, says group member Shahira Abouellail, was "beyond impossible."

"They really felt threatened by the Army at that point in time," she says. "They also felt like the Maikel Nabil case was very controversial."

Slowly, however, "people started to understand that by taking a stand against his arrest and sentence, you're not necessarily advocating his opinions and what he's written on his blog," says Ms. Abouellail. Even local media began to cover his case.

And Nabil says that toward the end of his ordeal, when he walked into the visiting room, other prisoners' families applauded him.

Now free, Nabil still blogs and advocates freedom of expression; he fears the next battle will be speech considered insulting to Islam. A prominent Christian businessman was accused of insulting Islam after tweeting a cartoon showing Mickey and Minnie Mouse in Islamic garb, though he was recently acquitted.

Abouellail says it's not surprising that Egyptians were reluctant to rally around Nabil. "We understood that people needed an education of the principles of freedom of speech and democracy" after living under a tyrannical regime for decades, she says. "There's still a revolution of the mind that needs to happen. And none of us are under any false impressions that this is going to happen overnight."

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