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.

Kristen Chick
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.

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.

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.

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.

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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