The following account, by activist and artist Aalam Wassef, details a meeting with prisoner of conscience Maikel Nabil, who was sentenced to two years in jail by a military tribunal on 14 December 2011 for "insulting the military." It is reproduced here with permission and was originally published on Facebook.
This is an account of my encounter on December 31st with Egyptian blogger and activist Maikel Nabil, arrested by the Supreme Council of Armed forces for opinions he posted on his blog. Maikel is now serving a two years sentence and is enduring inhuman conditions of detention. Since his arrest Maikel has refused to recognize the Military Prosecutor’s ability to judge him. Military trials for civilians have swept the Egyptian revolution with no less than 12,000 arrests since January 28th 2011.
El Marg Prison, 8.40 am. Waiting for Mark, Maikel Nabil's younger brother. Mark arrives carrying three heavy bags containing juices, milk, books, hundreds of sympathy messages, newspapers… An ornamented award certificate reads Istanbul, AHRLY, To Maikel Nabil for his firm commitment to freedom. I read again and stop at the word firm.
As we pass the prison’s porch, we’re immediately identified as Maikel people. Walky talkies start buzzing. Harrassment starts, routine bullying and unwritten administrative measures that Mark denounces vocally, one after the other, fearless.
Our bags and ourselves are searched and scanned, papers are confiscated. We board the traditional yellow wagon-bus that will take us to the visitor's hall. Right and left, all we can see are fields and animals. At the end of this unexpected green road, stands a white, blind, imposing wall, topped with barbed wire and, in the middle of all that whiteness, a small black door.
We watch officers banging at the door, going in, going out, at mothers, sisters and children waiting to be let in.
We wait as well. We give our IDs to Mrs Sabah. Mark knows everybody by their first names. I suddenly remember that he’s been coming here for 9 months and that, each time, he goes through the same bullying, and harassment. We wait ten more minutes and are let into the visitor's hall. Visits end at 12 and it's already 10.30. We wait, surrounded by informants who aren't really hiding from us. Mark asks the warden why Maikel hasn't come yet. Maikel's cell is 40 meters away and all other prisoners have come to their visitors. It's 11.
Maikel finally appears, carrying a plastic chair on which prisoners sit, maybe to be easily identified. I don't know. He comes to us. He can barely carry the light chair he finally puts down. I measure his exhaustion. It's the first time I ever meet him in person. Maikel is tall, pale, underweight, hunched, loosing his hair. His brother and I sit on the cold stone benches. Maikel brings his knees together and slips his hands in between to keep them warm. He's shaking cold. He says hello but is eager to start talking and working his way out of hell.
Mark says he has to leave in 30 minutes to sit for an exam. Time is tight. Maikel takes control of the conversation. I'm struck by the weakness of his body compared to the strength of his mind.
Mark fills him in with the latest news regarding the mobilization and march that was held for him on December 29th 2011. We see a shine in Maikel's tired eyes. Mark shows to his brother some photographs of the march, of the military violence footage youngsters projected on the walls of the Supreme Court of Justice, of this unforgettable charismatic woman wearing a niqab, carrying his picture all through out the march. We tell him about the UN Watch statement signed by 30 Human Rights organizations, about articles pouring in the international press, about Alaa Abdel Fattah who saluted him on ONTV, about students, mothers, fathers, friends, public figures and Egyptian activists who joined the march in solidarity. I give him a glimpse of Ahdaf Soueif marching in Tahrir, Lobna Darwish, Salma Said, Sultan Al Qassemi embracing his brother, Hossam el-Hamalawy and Omar Robert Hamilton filming and taking snapshots, of the thousands of friendly posts in social networks, of Mona el Tahawy tweeting and retweeting at all times of day and night, of this amazing woman who, out the blue, sent us her entire press contact list… I tell him about Tamim Al Barghouti's stance about him and the many unhappy reactions he received.
Maikel addresses me for the first time. I like Tamim's poetry. Sometimes, he snaps.
Mark and I try to convince Maikel to end his strike. We tell him how much mentalities, awareness and commitment have changed. He tells us how much he's in pain. Kidney pain. Maikel adresses me again, privately. I want to tell you something. For nine months, from prison, to hospital, to torture, to prison, I was let down by almost everybody. Opinions are opinions, human rights are human rights, military trials are military trials.
I ask him again to end his hunger strike. Maikel looks at the bags and asks. What did you bring, Mark? Mark responds. Maikel looks at us again. You have to take me away from here. Submit a request today to the General Prosecutor for my immediate transfer to Torah Prison. It's rotten here, people are rotten, cells are rotten, water is rotten, sewage water floods in my cell everyday, I can't bathe. He looks at me and points with his chin at an informant almost glued to me, and at another one sitting in our back. Maikel interrupts the conversation. How are you Abu Alaa! How are you Abu Hemed! Both informants turn around. Their faces break into a corrupt cringe of a smile.
Maikel resumes. I would like Alaa Abdel Fattah to come and visit me. Tell him he might be able to come on January 7th. And Mona Seif from No Military Trials. Tell them I would like to see them. I tell him about a post by Mona Seif saluting him and Mark for their struggle and resilience. The more we speak to Maikel about support, sympathy and commitment, the more I see him sitting straighter and straighter.
Maikel looks at the bag filled with books and pulls them out one by one, quietly. Sitting there, half dead on a plastic chair in El Marg Prison, he looks at each book, with patience and care. You can take that one back, I’ve read it already.
Aalam Wassef Cairo, January 6th 2011
There's a good post up at Bikya Misr asking that question:
CAIRO: A total of no more than 15 people showed up on Tuesday November 1 outside C28 to show their support for Maikel Nabil. Of the 15 were a couple of Maikel’s own family members and AlJazeera crew, which essentially dwindles the numbers down to about 11 protesters.
It’s Maikel’s 70th day on hunger strike, but clearly it didn’t concern many.
Having just attended a march the previous night to free Alaa Abdel Fattah, where thousands by thousands had joined, I frankly expected the people’s fuel had finally caught fire. Judging by the turnout that Tuesday however, I was mistaken and disheartened.
It’s difficult to point out why many have such a passive attitude towards Maikel’s case in particular. We claim to seek ‘freedom of speech’, no government censorship and the liberty to express ourselves. Yet where there is an opposing viewpoint we have a tendency to create boundaries – where is the freedom in that?
Try having a conversation with a colleague or a friend in attempt to define freedom of speech, more often than not people will say ‘I do believe in freedom of speech but …’ and wind up giving you exceptions such as it’s okay to say anything as long as it’s not ‘culturally insensitive’. As such, they subconsciously set limits on others freedom to express. The more conscious we become of it, the more we will be able to avoid it.
Personally, I say it bluntly and simply, I don’t agree with Maikel’s campaign “No to compulsory Service” and I’m against his pro-Israeli views. I would assume a lot of Egyptians would share a similar stance on the latter. Regardless of my justification for these views I still feel the need to act based on principle and humanity. Maikel has been accused of supposedly ‘insulting’ the military council in one of his blog posts and not for the ideas that have made him unpopular, which is a misconception I’ve been hearing frequently. And so, the way I see it supporting Maikel’s case has become synonymous with being a believer in freedom of speech.
I know why I care more about Alaa: because I know him. And for many Alaa is simply better-known, and associated with the anti-Mubarak, pro-democracy movement since 2005 at least. He's also a better communicator.
But at the same time it's true that the Maikel Nabil case does not get nearly as much attention. Part of it is that Maikel's initial reputation was built around his pro-Israel views, and his refusal to be drafted into military service because he doesn't want to harm Israel (as well as advice on draft-dodging). It's not just that many Egyptians have anti-Israel views, but it's also that Mikael's view is perplexing when you consider he defends a civil, secular state and human rights more generally: after all, Israel is hardly a great example of separation of religion and state.
Should any of this matter? I don't think so — at the end of the day, Mikael is the victim of a system of oppression that has sent some 12,000 to military tribunals, reduced freedom of expression and does not allow certain views — including being pro-Israel — from being expressed. And for that, he deserves support.