by Joseph Mayton
He was Egypt's first prisoner of conscious after the fall of Husni Mubarak in February.
Until recently, however, the story of Maikel Nabil was largely ignored by activists who were offended by his views on Israel. Now, inspired by his long hunger strike and angered by the authorities' decision to commit him to a psychiatric hospital last week, Egyptian activists have catapulted the young man into the spotlight.
Activists and observers say that by dispatching Nabil to a psychiatric institution, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Egypt's interim military government, is using a tactic borrowed from the Mubarak era in dealing with the opposition or others officials they want to keep out of the public eye by avoiding a trial: Declare them insane.
Basma Abdel Aziz, the director of media for Egypt's General Secretariat of Mental Health, said Nabil 's transfer to a psychiatric institution is "a dangerous and unacceptable affair." She and others contend that the military is attempting to avoid responsibility for his death, if it happens, by moving him out of prison.
Under the Mubarak regime, mental hospitals were used in the fight against sectarian violence. Following repeated attacks on Coptic Christians by Muslims in Upper Egypt in 2008 and 2009, the government deemed the perpetrators "mentally incapable" of standing trial and packed them off to psychiatric hospitals. This, say activists, is what the military is attempting to do with Nabil now.
George Ishak, a leading member of the National Association for Change, told The Media Line that SCAF has overstepped the bounds with Nabil's case. "They are doing so many things wrong," he said at his downtown Cairo office while fielding phone calls concerning the case and the upcoming elections. "SCAF needs to understand that they are hurting the country and free speech is one of those things."
Nabil was among the first bloggers to find himself jailed for expressing his views, but other bloggers and activists have since met the same fate as the brief spring of freedom of expression Egyptians enjoyed has evaporated in recent months. Activists fear that others will share Nabil's fate if they won't stop it now.
"They will let him die and then turn around and say he is crazy and this is why he died," said Amr Adel Radwan, a leading activist and protester, who has joined the fight against military trials in Egypt. "We might not like what Maikel had to say about Israel, but he doesn't deserve what is happening to him now."
Nabil was sentenced to a three-year jail term for insulting the Egyptian military on his blog Son of Ra in a post published last March entitled, "The people and the military were never one hand." The title referred to a popular slogan during the heyday of the revolution when opposition leaders believed the army was on their side.
A Copt, Nabil holds controversial political views. As such, he initially received little attention from the activist and pro-rights community in Egypt. He supports normalization with Israel and last year came under fire when he evaded military conscription, saying he is a pacifist and didn't want to ever have to be in a position of confronting Israeli soldiers
"I don't want to point a weapon at a young Israeli, recruited into obligatory service, defending his state's right to exist. I think obligatory service is a form of slavery," he wrote in a blog post then.
While Egyptians across the political spectrum disagree on many things, hostility to the Jewish state is nearly universal, even if polls show most aren't prepared to rip up the peace treaty Egypt signed with Israel in 1979. For many activists, support for Israel is a red line and the reason why Nabil had not received as much attention as other activists who have been summoned by the authorities in recent weeks.
Take, for example, Alaa Abdel Fattah, a leading blogger and activist, who on Sunday refused to participate in a military prosecution investigation into his involvement in the Maspero Square violence on Oct. 9. His refusal elicited massive support from the activist community, with activists on Twitter immediately calling for his release. They ensured that the "#FreeAlaa" hashtag had gone global by Sunday evening.
But now human rights groups and activists are calling for Nabil's immediate release, declaring him a prisoner of conscience, held illegally.
"The previous regime used to accuse mentally healthy individuals of being mentally disturbed and accuse them of crimes of conscience despite professional reports stating their sanity," said Abdel Aziz.
"The incarceration of an individual whose charge is having a different view of the situation in the country is morally and professionally unacceptable. Nabil is kept in one ward with others accused of criminal charges, a matter that is involves terrorizing and threat," she said.
For Nabil, who returns to court to face charges on Tuesday, his now 70-day hunger strike is beginning to show activists the importance of freedom of speech. For Radwan, it was an example of how Nabil's situation began to break the pedestal that the military had been placed upon since Feb. 11.
"We all learned from Nabil. We made mistakes in not supporting him because of Israel, but now we know he must be released. We are all Maikel Nabil and let us pray the people know this," added Radwan.
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