“Is it true that you typed ‘Down with military rule?’” military investigators asked Maikel Nabil in Cairo’s El Marg prison after his arrest last March, referring to his blog post titled, ‘The Army and the People Were Never One Hand.’
It was true, and they were words the Egyptian activist would repeat tirelessly throughout the ten months that he endured in military prison, and unflinchingly in public this week just after being one of almost 2,000 prisoners pardoned and released by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces’ (SCAF) Field Marshal Tantawi.
At a press conference on Saturday, only four days after his release, Nabil reiterated his unequivocal rejection of Tantawi’s pardon as invalid because he never committed a crime to begin with, adding that “all charges against those implicated for expressing an opinion must be revoked.”
The 26-year-old appeared physically revitalised, considering he had only ended an almost five-month hunger strike less than a month ago. His eyes shone with intensity as he matter-of-factly recounted details of the military’s various abuses against him during both of his arrests last year, trial and imprisonment.
Even before it took over power from the ousted regime of former president Hosni Mubarak, Nabil learned firsthand that SCAF employed the same torturous tactics as the regime had to censor dissent.
On his way to protest in Tahrir Square on 4 February while carrying a sign calling for a “civil state, not religious or military,” he was arrested, blindfolded and beaten during interrogation under duress at a military intelligence center.
Though he was released shortly afterward, the experience emboldened the longtime military objector to blog in March: "The revolution has so far managed to get rid of the dictator, but not the dictatorship."
Nabil was subsequently arrested at his home on 28 March and said he was forced to watch other detainees being tortured upon his arrival at the military intelligence center, in an attempt at psychological intimidation. Before interrogation, he was apparently drugged.
“They sprayed my face with some chemical while I was blindfolded and I wasn’t able to concentrate. My lawyer had to repeat the questions over and over.”
Nabil maintained that he was never told what he was accused of, but that “[military intelligence officers] had 150 pages printed from my blog and Facebook.”
At a military tribunal in April, he was charged with publishing rumours and defaming the military. When he asked for witnesses to prove it, the judge told him that the only witness was the intelligence officer who investigated the case against him, which Nabil deemed “disgusting.”
“The whole trial was superficial. It was very obvious that military intelligence had already decided my fate.”
On 10 April, Nabil said he was tried and sentenced without his lawyers present after they were told at the courthouse that the trial was postponed. After they left, the intelligence officers escorting him had “a look of schadenfreude” as they issued his verdict--three years in military prison, later reduced to two years after a lengthy appeals process.
“They said ‘the army makes men.’ What is so manly about attacking people, jailing them and preventing them from writing?” Nabil asked journalists on Saturday afternoon.
He went on to describe how he suffered solitary confinement in his tiny, dark and cold cell, while he went on a hunger strike to protest his unfair imprisonment.
“I was informed of my ‘rights’ as a hunger striker--I was to officially inform them, so that if I died they wouldn’t be held accountable.”
This heartlessness was reserved not only for civilians, but for the military’s own as well. Nabil claimed to have witnessed many cases of soldiers imprisoned for the tiniest of infractions. He received several messages of support from lower rank officers who agreed with his criticism of SCAF, only to be later imprisoned themselves.
“The problem is not military trials, but the existence of a military judiciary itself,” Nabil said.
At a time when many were still glorifying the military for their neutrality during the revolution, Nabil became the first blogger to be imprisoned for criticising the institution.
Both the sentencing itself and the last years’s events have proven Nabil right. Besides violent dispersals of peaceful public protests that have resulted in hundreds of deaths, the military council has liberally abused the Emergency Law and arbitrarily arrested over 12,000 civilians--whereas Mubarak subjected 2,000 civilians to military trials during his 30-year rule. These arrests were made under the guise of maintaining security after police withdrew from their posts on 28 January, 2011. However, wanton arrests and military trials of civilians continued even after police returned.
Nabil continued to rail against SCAF in a live television interview with Al Jazeera English on Saturday evening, saying, “I don’t believe the transitional stage is going in the right direction. There are still lots of revolutionaries in Tahrir.”
Heba Morayef, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, says Nabil’s case is a perfect reflection of Egypt’s stagnant change. “There is not much difference between Mubarak and SCAF, in terms of the Egyptian government’s involvement in human rights abuses and its limits on criticism of it, with the military using the same legal framework that enabled Mubarak to do so during his regime.”
Morayef added that the release of Nabil is not the end of the fight for the fundamental right to freedom of expression in Egypt. “The law and penal code still need to be reformed,” she said.
On the eve of the January 25 Revolution anniversary, Tantawi announced the partial lifting of emergency law, except in cases of “thuggery,” but said nothing about ending military trials for civilians.
The unapologetic pardon of Nabil and almost 2,000 other military prisoners last week along with the partial lifting of Emergency Law have been analyzed as political concessions to appease revolutionaries. But the truth is, most of them have remained silent about the case of Maikel Nabil.
Nabil said he was “hurt by attempts to separate me from other revolutionaries, saying Maikel is a different case.”
Indeed, he is a different case, in that he is of Coptic Christian background, atheist belief, and a pacifist to the point that he supports Israel’s right to exist. By highlighting such unrelated controversial characteristics, SCAF and state-controlled media have successfully drawn attention away from Nabil’s exposure of the military’s violations.
“I was detained three times. Never was the issue of Israel raised until the last one [when he blogged against SCAF],” he said Saturday.
“I told the revolutionaries don’t fall for their trick to separate us. There is no revolutionary better than the other.”
Despite the hardships and little support, Nabil remains positive and defiant as ever, saying he will return to the frontlines of the revolution as soon as he can. “I miss politics, going to Tahrir, writing on my blog and getting into discussions with people, even if they disagree with me,” he said in a YouTube video he posted just hours after his release.
That Nabil continues to speak out against SCAF’s violations is not only a testament to his "consistent bravery and integrity," says Morayef, but also to the fact that "arrests and military trials will not silence everyone."
As he ended his hunger strike on the last day of 2011, Nabil blogged: “I wish that the year 2012 be the year for the freedom of mine, Egypt and humanity.”