Hope for a birth of liberty in Egypt took a serious blow on Monday when a military tribunal sentenced Maikel Nabil to three years in prison for the crime of free speech.
Mr. Nabil is a 26-year-old blogger who had been on the barricades in Cairo’s Tahrir Square demonstrating for the ouster of authoritarian ruler Hosni Mubarak, and later kept up the pressure for democratic reform from the transitional military government. “We are against what the army is doing to steal our revolution,” he wrote. His criticism pressed the limits of liberalism in the new Egypt. On March 28, Mr. Nabil was taken from his home by Egyptian soldiers and charged with “insulting the military institution, dissemination of false news and disturbing public security.”
Educated, secularist advocates for freedom like Mr. Nabil are the people the ruling classes in the Middle East fear the most. They are also the ones the United States should most ardently defend. He appeared at the anti-Mubarak protests with a banner reading “civil [government], not military or religious.” The military has a special grudge against Mr. Nabil because he is a conscientious objector who resisted compulsory service. He said in an interview last October, “I think that conscription is a kind of slavery; I have worked many years for my freedom.” Mr. Nabil also represents a challenge to the proponents of Shariah law for Egypt, both as a Coptic Christian (though frankly skeptical of organized religion), and as an advocate for women’s rights.
Mr. Nabil is fighting for the same freedoms Americans enjoy. One of his most powerful political statements was a blog post from December 2010 in which he explained why he supports Israel. “My support for Israel is not in support of Israel itself,” he wrote, “as it is in support of the values represented by the State of Israel in the region.” Mr. Nabil looks beyond the narrow and divisive issues of “Jew and Muslim” and “Arabic and Hebrew” and focuses on “the values of democracy and modernity that Israel represents - whether we like it or not in the region.”
Mr. Nabil sees in Israel the state that Egypt could become. Israel is a pluralist democracy which in 60 years built a civil society that Egypt has not matched in 5,000. Israel’s people are free; it has the best universities in the region; and it upholds human rights at home and abroad. Mr. Nabil said he will “stand by Israel as a modernist democracy where the people live as free citizens in a region of the world where free thinking is considered a crime.”
Mr. Nabil had been arrested before for expressing his radical secularist views. In February, he was rounded up with other demonstrators and held for two days. “We were treated as captured enemy soldiers at war,” he wrote of his experience. “We were tied from our backs, blinded, bent over, didn’t know where we were and were not allowed to speak with each other.” He added, laconically, “It’s really not the way to deal with good citizens in their homeland!”
This abuse at the hands of the authorities convinced Mr. Nabil that in the end the voices of freedom would prevail. “Although those were the hardest days of my life,” he wrote, “after I was freed, I started to feel that these people are cowards. They were scared to show their faces, or to let us know where we were. We were tied from the back, in front of them without weapons, and they were scared! Never mind, freedom has a price - they tried to make us feel that we are weak but we are strong.”
Mr. Nabil wrote, “The revolution has so far managed to get rid of the dictator but not of the dictatorship.” Without a trace of irony, the Cairo junta has thrown Maikel Nabil in jail and proven his point.