Tahrir activist's imprisonment shows Egypt is still not free

The case of Tahrir activist and Egyptian blogger Maikel Nabil, who has been on a hunger strike for nearly a month, shows torture and prisoners of conscience aren't just a thing of Egypt's past.

Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters
A demonstrator looks on with a sign reading 'I am against the military courts for civilians' taped over his mouth at Tahrir Square after Friday prayers in Cairo. Egyptian activists converged on downtown Cairo on Friday for a demonstration to press military rulers to speed up the transfer of power to civilians and revoke emergency laws once used by ousted President Hosni Mubarak against his opponents.

Maikel Nabil Sanad just wouldn't be silenced. The young Egyptian blogger's father was afraid for his son and his own position as a bank manager. "I'm our sole breadwinner. If I don't work, we don't eat," says the elder Nabil Sanad.

So when Maikel's criticism of the Hosni Mubarak regime grew ever more direct, his father turned off the Internet.

Not be deterred, Maikel made the 100-mile trek north to Cairo from his hometown of Assiut, enrolled in Cairo University's law school with an eye towards getting involved in politics, and all the while kept tossing darts at the regime from his keyboard. When protests erupted against Mubarak on Jan. 25, he was swept up in the excitement of Tahrir Square with millions of other Egyptians from his generation. On Feb. 4, he made his way towards Tahrir with hundreds of thousands of others. He was stopped at a police checkpoint for carrying a homemade sign that said: "No to a religious state, no to military rule. We want a civilian government."

He was detained and some in the crowd jeered at him. His distrust of the military was not widely shared, at least not then, and at the time the army were seen as neutral arbiters between the protesters and Mubarak. But his experience belies the common narrative that it's been the police and intelligence services, not the military, who have been solely behind human rights abuses this year.

Today, many of the activists who toppled Mubarak are vowing a return in numbers to Tahrir Square. They're angry that the Mubarak-era emergency law – which basically lets the military and police do what they like in the name of national security – remains in force. But today's protest has been given an added dose of urgency by a recently passed electoral law, that almost every independent political group in the country – from the Muslim Brotherhood to the socialists to the secular liberal parties – believes is designed to give former regime elements a leg up in parliamentary elections, now promised to start Nov. 28.

Maikel's life since Feb. 4 illustrates the deteriorating relationship between the activists and the military government.

Military police soon arrived and took him to a military intelligence office in Nasser City, on Cairo's outskirts. While there, he says he was repeatedly beaten with his arms bound behind his back, warned to stop complaining about the military, and subjected to crude sexual threats. On Feb. 6, he was released. After Mubarak was ousted from power on Feb. 11, Maikel filed a formal complaint with the public prosecutor alleging torture. After that complaint went nowhere, he returned to his blog, with a post warning of a military takeover titled "The army and the people are not one hand," a direct assault on Supreme Council for the Armed Forces' (SCAF) branding of itself as the defender of the Egyptian revolution.

A blistering post, then retaliation

It was a blistering post, detailing the military's use in March of electric shocks on activists at the Egyptian Museum, at one end of Tahrir Square; of the use of so-called "virginity tests" against female demonstrators as a form of torture, and came with YouTube videos that showed the aftermath of abuse.

"After Mubarak fell, Maikel thought the country was free, so he acted that way," says his younger brother Mark, who was with Maikel when he was arrested on Feb. 4. "He felt it was his right to demand justice for the way he was treated."

Instead, his attacks on the military opened the door to a hell for himself and his family, with his life currently hanging by a thread. On March 28 he was arrested, and on April 10 he was hauled before a military court and sentenced to three years in prison for the crimes of "insulting the military" and spreading false information.

His family says he was prevented from mounting any sort of defense, particularly to the charge of spreading "false information."

"We had girls who were subjected to virginity testing who were ready to testify. [Musician] Ramy Essam was willing to testify to torture. We had video to back up most of this," says his brother, Mark. "We weren't allowed to present any evidence. What he wrote were facts, not opinions."

Ramy Essam is a musician who wrote and performed one of Tahrir Square's anthems and was subjected to torture at the Egyptian Museum on March 9. Pictures that can be found on the Internet attest to his treatment.

(The following paragraph was edited after posting to correct the number of days Maikel had been on hunger strike).

Maikel has been on hunger strike for 38 days at Marg Prison, which was stormed by locals after Mubarak fell to free some political prisoners and others there on criminal charges. His family says his weight has dropped from 130 pounds to just over 100, and that he's been denied medication for a pre-existing heart condition. Sitting in a cafe in the shadow of Egypt's Supreme Court this week, Maikel's father shuffles documents related to the case – the one sentencing Maikel to three years of hard labor, a rejected appeal to move Maikel to a hospital (his father offered to carry all costs) – as his bitterness pours out.

"I'm afraid they want him to die in prison. If he does, that will be a crime against humanity," he says, as shoppers and vendors go about their business as normal in the busy square. "It will be fully the military's responsibility and I'll pursue this for the rest of my life."

Maikel, a Coptic Christian who holds unpopular political views, is an easier target than most. In 2010, he refused conscription into the army on grounds that he was a pacifist, and expressed sympathy for Israel. In a blog post then, he wrote "I don't want to point a weapon at a young Israeli, recruited into obligatory service, defending his state's right to exist. I think obligatory service is a form of slavery." The military, he wrote, "accused me of collaboration, treachery, of working for foreign interests. In light of this campaign, I began fearing for my life if I were to serve in the army, especially in an organization that enjoys censorship (and) a non-neutral military judicial system."

Mark says he's been warned by the military police that if he doesn't stop talking "then you'll end where your brother is." But he and his father seem grimly determined. They're trying to organize a protest outside Marg Prison on Oct. 1, calling for Maikel's release. And Egyptians gathered today in Tahrir to protest the ongoing emergency laws, military trials, and what they see as a military-written election law that favors the remnants of Mubarak's old National Democratic Party.

Most Egyptians, it seems, still trust the military. But those numbers are smaller now than they were seven months ago. Maikel's insistence on speaking out, and his treatment in return, is one of the reasons why.

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