Late on the night of 23 October, Basma Abdel Aziz, a 35-year-old psychiatrist, received a phone call alerting her that a military judge had sent Maikel Nabil to the Abbasiya psychiatric facility to undergo mental evaluation.
Abdel Aziz, who works as the head of the Media and Awareness Office at the General Secretariat of Mental Health at the ministry of health, had heard about the case of the detained blogger, who the ruling military council has been prosecuting for months, but she had never met him.
Earlier that day, Maikel Nabil refused to appear at a military court session that was scheduled to review his appeal of the three-year prison sentence which a military court had meted out to him, and also instructed his lawyer not to attend.
Nabil had had enough of the torturous trips back and forth to military courts since 28 March, when the army first apprehended him, and wanted to send a message that he would no longer, as a civilian, allow military courts to try him for his political views.
Back in the winter, the 27-year-old Nabil, a veterinarian by trade and a human rights activist, had angered the ruling military council when he published a blog post in which he accused the Egyptian army of conspiring last winter to supply Mubarak’s police with arms and ammunition in order to help the former dictator suppress the January 25 uprising which eventually brought him down.
As someone who directs special academic research programs on the impact of social stigmas on individuals, and also as a veteran rights activist who has been subjected to persecution by Mubarak’s notorious State Security Intelligence (SSI) for her views, Abdel Aziz concluded that the government had sent Maikel to the Abbasiya psychiatric ward to stigmatise the blogger because it does not approve of his opinions.
“It took me no time at all to realise that the military judge was trying to smear Maikel’s reputation, because they do not like what he has to say.”
“This was a clear and dangerous case of reviving a practice that former president Nasser used in the 1960s against his political opponents.”
“This is what Nasser’s men did to the late poet Naguib Surrur in 1969. They tried to stigmatise him as a crazy person when they sent him to Abbasiya, because they could not stand his communist ideas and his critique of their dictatorship.”
Abdel Aziz had one more reason to be frustrated with the military’s decision to revive the practice of using her psychiatric facility as a place to send activists in an attempt to punish them for their views.
The Abbasiya hospital has developed a reputation over the decades as a place where some doctors and nurses abused mental health patients through administering inhumane injections with all sorts of sedatives, beatings, and even rape.
“Doctors and the staff at our hospital have been fighting for years to make sure that we respect the human rights of our patients and that we provide model healthcare.”
“We have worked tirelessly to change patient care in the facility for the better, and we were not about to let the government or anyone else tarnish our image and professional reputation again.”
Sensing the underlying danger in the military’s decision, she grabbed her phone again to foil the military judge’s ploy.
“I called my superior, Dr. Hisham Rabie, the head of the National Institute for Mental Health, and he immediately arranged for a panel comprised of three top mental health experts to evaluate Maikel at the hospital upon his arrival from prison the following morning.”
“I also understood that Maikel has been on hunger strike to protest his detention for more than two months and that he was frail and probably needed his family’s presence and support. So, I called Mark, Maikel’s brother and advocate, and helped him to arrange a visit to the hospital to be by Maikel’s side.”
Doctor takes fight out of hospital
The next morning, 24 October, after ensuring that Maikel would be evaluated by a high-calibre professional medical team and that he was temporarily comforted in his stay in the hospital by the presence of members of his family, Abdel Aziz took her fight against what she perceived as a grave act of injustice to the public.
Abdel Aziz, with permission from superiors, issued a press release that she distributed widely to the media, in which she underscored her hospital’s refusal to take part in the government’s attempt to stigmatise Nabil as a “psychologically disturbed” person for his political views.
“The Media and Awareness Office denounces attempts to use mental health institutes to serve goals which we are not in business to fulfil. The previous regime has attempted to designate individuals who are perfectly mentally sound as ‘psychos’ in their quest to prosecute them for expressing certain points of view,” the press release read.
“The Media and Awareness Office calls on all activists and advocates for mental health and human rights to stand in solidarity with us as we reject this ploy and as we raise the motto of 'Hospitals are for patients who need medical help …freedom of expression is a right for everyone’.”
Minutes after she faxed the press release, Abdel Aziz learned that Minister of Health Amr Helmi, who is the government official who oversees the Abbasiya hospital, was speaking at a special function for young physicians at the ministry’s training centre just a few blocks from her workplace.
Abdel Aziz and her co-worker, Dr. Ahmed Hussein, who heads the Office of Patients’ Rights at the General Secretariat of Mental Health, rushed down the road in order to present the minister with their press release, and demand that the ministry not cooperate with government attempts to smear the reputation of prisoners of conscience.
Denied access to the minister by the security guards at the doors of the training centre, Abdel Aziz and Hussein passed copies of the statement she authored to journalists who were attending the event, in the hope that they would ask the minister some tough questions.
The journalists did.
A couple of reporters managed to question the minister, who was in the middle of delivering a keynote speech to young doctors, about the whereabouts of Maikel Nabil. The reporters demanded that the minister confirm or deny that one of his hospitals was actually conducting mental evaluations of a political prisoner.
The minister, caught off guard, denied any and all knowledge of the issue.
But later that day, his office made an angry call to Abdel Aziz’s bosses at the hospital to complain about her disruptive behaviour, and demanded that the Secretariat discipline her for issuing statements in the name of the ministry without prior approval from superiors.
However, Dr. Aref Khuailed, the General Secretary of the Mental Health Division, declined to take any action against Abdel Aziz, his employee and mentee.
Moreover, Khuailed replied to the minister’s office with a letter in which he stated that his entire office, not only Abdel Aziz, opposes the referral of Maikel Nabil or any other political activist to psychiatric facilities, and that he personally endorsed Abdel Aziz’s press release.
Government spokesperson caught out
Later that same evening, TV presenter Reem Maged, who hosts the popular ONTV show Akhbar Baladna (News of Our Country), and who had discussed Nabil’s case on her programme before, caught wind of the new developments and designated a segment on air to find out what exactly was going on.
Maged, an outspoken proponent of democratic rights herself and someone whom military prosecutors actually questioned over the summer for airing news they considered “not army-friendly”, invited the spokesperson for the minister of health onto her show to discuss the validity of the unconfirmed news that the army had sent a political prisoner to a health ministry mental facility.
Mohamed Hassan Sherbini, the minister’s official spokesperson, claimed on live TV that Maikel Nabil was not admitted to Abbasiya Hospital.
Sherbini accused Abdel Aziz of fabricating the whole story and abusing the powers of her office by releasing false statements in the name of the ministry.
Seething with anger, Sherbini also charged that “people like Abdel Aziz are in the business of spreading rumours in the name of the January 25 Revolution.”
As if to stress his indignation, Sherbini announced on air that the ministry of health has opened an investigation into what he described as “questionable behaviour by the head of the Office of Media and Awareness.”
However, unfortunately for the minister’s spokesperson, Reem Maged seemed to have done her homework on the controversy before he went on air.
Dr. Ahmed Hussein, the head of Patients’ Rights and the person who had tried to reach the minister of health that morning with Abdel Aziz, called in to the programme and told the audience that Sherbini was misleading the public.
“Maikel Nabil is in fact in the Abbasiya mental institute at the moment. I personally visited with him this morning,” Hussein told Maged.
Moreover, Hussein added on air that the entire staff at the General Secretariat of Mental Health at Abbasiya approve of the statement that Basma Abdel Aziz released to the public, and that he and other mental healthcare providers reject government attempts to use psychiatric institutes as a medium to stigmatise prisoners of conscience.
“Dr. Hussein exposed the spokesperson on live TV, and the military’s unjust actions in front of millions of people,” Abdel Aziz said of her co-worker.
“It was not even that hard of a task to expose the guy. This Sherbini person is not a physician by trade. He comes from an engineering background and knows very little about how the ministry works or medicine,” Abdel Aziz said.
“He got this job, to speak in the name of our ministry, simply because he is a personal friend of the minister,” she added.
The following day, Wednesday 25 October, Hussein issued his own press release on the matter.
Abdel Aziz’s co-worker reiterated his staff’s opposition to the military judge’s decision to send Maikel Nabil to Abbasiya, and to clear Abdel Aziz’s name again.
Moreover, he opened fire on Sherbini, and demanded that the minister fire his spokesperson for his misrepresentation of the facts in Nabil’s case.
The more activists, the better
Later that afternoon, two days into the saga, Abdel Aziz and her wider circle of human rights activist friends opened a new front in the battle to free Maikel Nabil.
Dozens of supporters of Abdel Aziz and Nabil rallied on Abbasiya’s premises to protest the government’s ploy to prosecute the doctor for standing by Maikel Nabil, and to also demand that the blogger be discharged from the hospital.
El-Nadeem Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture, where Abdel Aziz once specialised as a psychological counsel for African refugees, hastily put together the protest.
The rally was also attended by members of the Egyptian Social Democratic party, which issued a statement defending Abdel Aziz; members of the independent union of healthcare providers at the hospital who had two years ago successfully chased the last director of the Abbasiya hospital out of her job for incompetence; and members of the independent Tahrir doctors group who had led rescue efforts for thousands of the injured during the January uprising against Mubarak.
As the activists were tightening the noose on the government’s ploy to smear Nabil, the three-doctor panel had examined the blogger, and reached a unanimous decision not to admit the 27-year-old blogger to Abbasiya’s psychiatric hospital.
“The panel’s verdict not to admit Maikel into the psychiatric facility sent a clear message to the public that he is mentally sound. The fact that the government does not approve of what he says does not mean that the young man is mad,” Abdel Aziz said.
In fact, the hospital administration wanted to discharge Maikel a day earlier than they actually did, but a strike by non-commissioned officers – who would have had to accompany him on his way back to prison - delayed his release by 24 hours.
Maikel Nabil finally left the hospital on the morning of Thursday 26 October, and was taken back to military prison.
The government does these sort of things
After she had finished her marathon of activities over the course of three long days, Abdel Aziz was able to sit back and reflect for a few minutes on the whole episode.
“I think the military council wanted to stigmatise Maikel in order to scare all the other activists who want to continue this revolution,” she said.
“I am not sure that I agree with all of Maikel’s views on the world, especially his claim that Israel is a democratic country. But, I believe that he has the right to criticise the military council, and this does not make him a crazy person.”
Although Abdel Aziz has never endured the kind of harsh experience like that which Maikel Nabil has gone through in recent months, she has had her fair share of government harassment and persecution for her own political activism over the years.
As a college student at the faculty of medicine at Ain Shams University in Cairo during the 1990s, Mubarak’s State Security Intelligence taunted Abdel Aziz for her political activism.
She spent her university years organising for women’s and Coptic rights, political freedoms, and solidarity with the Palestinian struggle against Israel.
“The secret police followed me around campus and kept tabs on me all the time,” she recalled.
“Though I graduated with honours from college, the SSI prevented me from signing up for a residency program, and my career was put on hold,” she said.
“But with the support of sympathetic faculty members, I prepared, and successfully defended, a Master’s thesis on the psychological impact of torture on its victims,” she said.
“I, and my colleagues who helped me, did this at a time when Mubarak prevented people from discussing the issue of torture in his prisons in the press or in academia.”
From Tahrir to Abbasiya
Abdel Aziz insisted that she could not have done much to get Maikel out of Abbasiya without the help of her colleagues.
In fact, many of the individuals who huddled around Nabil in his short-lived saga at the mental ward are activists who have been fighting for human rights and political freedoms just like Abdel Aziz.
For one, many of Abdel Aziz’s doctor friends who collaborated with her to get Nabil out of the psychiatric facility had been involved in the events of January this year.
During those 18 days in Tahrir that brought down Mubarak, Abdel Aziz treated the injured and smuggled medicine past army checkpoints which locked protesters inside the now iconic square.
Abdel Aziz did not only tend to patients in Tahrir.
The 35–year-old activist psychiatrist and her doctor friends chanted with demonstrators, threw stones back at Mubarak thugs when it became necessary, and did what all the other rebels had to do in order to come out on top.
“Yes, I treated injured protesters in Tahrir. But, I always wanted to run back to my spot in the demonstration and get on with chanting,” she said.
Maikel Nabil also chanted and organised in Tahrir Square during the uprising, but the two never met until he was railroaded into her workplace.
“Maikel went through a lot in the last few months,” she said.
“He was imprisoned for his opinions. He has been on hunger strike for over two months. His health has deteriorated.” she reflected.
“It is not fair that military judges who refused to admit Maikel to a hospital as his health deteriorated because of months of hunger strike would, just like that, send him here to portray him as mad person.”
Ministry won't forgive Abdel Aziz for speaking out
On 1 November, Nabil, under pressure from family, agreed to appear at his most recent court session. Still, the presiding military judge once again put off a decision to revise Nabil’s three-year prison sentence until 13 November.
As the ministry of health had, despite the threats of its spokesman on public TV, failed to serve Abdel Aziz with any subpoena to appear at headquarters for investigation, the doctor went on with her life.
She was been able to focus on her work at the hospital during the mornings, and kept busy helping out her friends at El-Nadeem Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture on a new case of police brutality that engulfed the nation’s attention after Maikel left Abbasiya.
However, on 31 October, seven whole days after the spokesperson threatened to drag her into a legal quagmire on air, Abdel Aziz abruptly received a government subpoena ordering her to appear for questioning by the Department of Legal Affairs at the ministry of health.
In the next 24 hours, before Abdel Aziz could even properly respond to the first notice, the ministry frantically served her with two more subpoenas, almost identical to the first one, to reconfirm their order.
On 2 November, a delegation made up of 11 prominent activists representing various groups made a statement of solidarity with Basma Abdel Aziz and went to protest the government’s harassment of the psychiatrist to the minister in person.
The statement was signed by a few dozen well known writers, activists, academics, trade unionists and rights organisations.
These included the well known writer Belal Fadl, human rights lawyer Khaled Ali, two professors at the American University in Cairo, colleagues of Abdel Aziz at the hospital and members of the independent union at the facility, and staff at El-Nadeem Centre and at the NGO Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
The signatories demanded that the ministry drop any charges against Basma Abdel Aziz and issue an apology to her, and also review its internal process of choosing spokespersons in order to ensure sound and transparent lines of communication with the public.
After hours of intense searching for the minister all over the building, and negotiations with half a dozen officials at the ministry, the delegation failed to deliver the statement in person to the chief, and decided to leave a copy with secretaries, vowing to track their boss down.
However, Basma and friends did not have to return to the ministry to confront the minister again on the matter of investigations.
The ministry, perhaps unwilling to deal with more protests at headquarters, informed Abdel Aziz and the media that they have decided to drop all charges against her and that they have “closed her file.”
So for now, the doctor is back to work fighting for just causes, and Maikel and all his supporters wait for the military judge to do the "right” thing on 13 November.
“I am happy people rallied to my defence and I also wish more people would rally around Maikel’s case so he can finally go home,” said Abdel Aziz.