The Mideast and Abroad
- Published on Friday, 16 December 2011 00:00
Egypt’s most prominent internet activist gets two years in jail.
CAIRO – On Wednesday afternoon, just as millions of Egyptians were lining up around their blocks for the second round of parliamentary election voting, a military court sentenced 26-year-old Maikel Nabil Sanad, the first prisoner of conscience in post-Mubarak Egypt, to two years in prison.
Maikel was originally arrested on March 28, after he wrote a blog post titled “The army and the people wasn’t ever one hand,” a direct critique of the popular slogan to the contrary. The post catalogued events that suggested the army was not nearly as sympathetic to the revolution as was generally believed, and listed specific military attacks on activists and the revolution at large.
Maikel’s case is just one of over 12,000 military trials that have proceeded under the Supreme Council of the Armed Force’s transition government, more than the entire number under Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year reign.
The truth is, freeing Maikel Nabil has never been a widely popular cause aside from a flurry of activity on Twitter and Facebook following his detention in April and after Wednesday’s ruling. Like so many other acts of the Egyptian military regime, the ruling sparked a loud response from a small activist community without provoking much, if any, public outcry. Moreover, because of his statements on Israel and regional politics, Maikel has received less attention and support here than other prominent detainees, like Alaa Abd El-Fatah.
As Rawah Badrawi, a Cairo-based author tweeted moments after news spread of Maikel’s sentence, “The sad truth: most people in Egypt don't know about #maikelnabil, and those that do probably think he got what he deserved.”
Even liberal activists have been sharply divided in their support for Maikel, who became well known in the run-up to the January 25th revolution in part because of his tendency to write in multiple languages, including Hebrew, and his views on Israel, Egypt, and the broader Middle East. That is not to say many activists have not taken up his cause. In reference to the fact that many outspoken anti-SCAF activists have abandoned Maikel’s cause, Moh Kamel, who often takes issue with what he sees as the hypocrisy and double-standards of many fellow liberals, tweeted “If dissenting voices are gagged, how do you expect our society to become more tolerant?”
On his eponymous website, Maikel describes himself as “Liberal, Secular, Capitalist, Feminist, Pro-Western, Pro-Israel, Atheist, Materialist, Realist, Pro-Globalist, Intactivist, Anti-militarist, Pacifist.”
The tragedy of Maikel’s case is therefore two-fold. First, his willingness to speak out against conscription and military abuses in Egypt – along with his idiosyncratic views on Israel, the West, and the Middle East – has been greeted with a mix of apprehension, apathy, and outright rejection. Second, the revolution that he whole-heartedly endorsed and worked for now proceeds without him.
In a phone interview, Noor Noor, an activist who visited Maikel in prison earlier this week stated, “clearly he has some very extreme views, occasionally some of his views, after he explains them to you, they make a lot more sense. He has so much to offer, and now he is not going to have much of a chance.”
As for his own expectations for his case, Noor said, “Maikel expected this sentence.” From the beginning of his detention, Maikel has outright refused to acknowledge the jurisdiction of military courts, and turned down an earlier offer to have his charges dropped in return for an apology to the army.
On principle, Maikel has been on a hunger strike for more than 100 days. As for the toll it has taken on his body, Noor commented, “he’s been living on milk, vitamins, turning into a skeleton, its quite scary to see a grown man get completely reduced like that. Regardless of how much weight he’s lost he’s still extremely strong willed, charismatic, determined.”
In a statement to AFP News following the sentence, Maikel’s brother Mark said that he will escalate his hunger strike, and “now will only drink water.” Since Wednesday’s sentence came from a military court, it is impossible to appeal.
Maikel’s case is extraordinary precisely because it strikes at the internal tensions within the activist community, tensions that have been broadly ignored by the biggest media outlets in favor of a narrative that emphasizes the general distinctions between liberals, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Salafis.
Indeed, the elections have focused everyone’s attention on their differences with each other, rather than on universal causes like the protection of free speech. Still, when pressed on the prospect for organized demonstrations against military trials and abuses, Noor was optimistic. He stated, “we will do our best to battle this horrible pandemic, elections have widely distracted public opinion, but not for long. I honestly think soon people will start remembering what the revolution was all about. It wasn’t about dissolving the parliament and getting a new one, but securing the rights of all Egyptians.”
That battle to secure a brighter future for all of Egyptian society is the bigger picture. Ultimately, behind all of the labels and positions, it is what Maikel and countless others have fought for.
It only seems fitting to conclude with Maikel’s own words from a video he recorded of himself on February 4 titled “Message to Israel Calling for Solidarity with the Egyptian Revolution.” Signing off, Maikel said, “I am going now to join my friends in Tahrir square, I don’t know if I’ll return, I don’t know if I’ll be killed as my friend was killed last week, but it’s my duty to call for democracy, its my duty to demonstrate.”By Will Roth, Aslan Media Contributor