Hopes that post-Hosni Mubarak Egypt would be a beacon of free speech suffered a blow last week when the country’s ruling military council sentenced a well-known blogger to three years in prison. Maikel Nabil Sanad is many things that set him apart in his native country: an atheist of Coptic origin, a pacifist, and – in a country where “normalization” is often a dirty word – unabashedly pro- Israel.
Detained March 30, Sanad was given a quick show trial without his lawyers present and convicted of “insulting the military establishment” and “spreading false information.” The information he posted on his blog – on the army’s use of violence against protesters and its torture of detainees – had already been widely publicized by human rights groups like Amnesty International.
Sanad is a 25-year-old unemployed veterinarian from Asyut, a Nile-side
city in Egypt’s interior near Gamal Abdel Nasser’s home village. Sanad’s
blog, “Son of Ra,” can be viewed in English, Arabic and Hebrew (the
last of which the blogger was studying prior to his incarceration).
Reader comments in English and Hebrew gush with appreciation for the
blogger’s liberal, conciliatory ideals. Those in Arabic are almost
IN OCTOBER, Sanad announced he would refuse to serve his mandatory military service.
goes against my conscience,” he wrote. “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,
and I have worked for years for my freedom.”
The next week he
gave an interview to the Ynet news site on how he came to be, in his own
words, Egypt’s “only” pro-Israel activist.
“From a young age I
read a lot about the Israeli-Arab conflict. I understood the Arab media
hid facts that support Israel,” he said. “I tried to contact Israeli
activists and started asking them questions, such as, ‘Is it true that
Israel is a militaristic state?’ or, ‘Is it true that Israel wants to
expand and reach the Nile?’... Many Arabs living in Israel told me how
they are really treated and how much they prefer living in Israel above
any Arab state.”
He added that “if the Palestinians had a
democratic leadership, everything would be solved. Take the war on Gaza
for example – Hamas started it. They refused to hold elections in Gaza
and took control of the regime. They planned a dictatorial and
fundamentalist regime. They refused to speak to Israel, fired rockets at
it and caused it to defend itself.”
The interview set off a
flurry of criticism in Egypt, with mainstream and Islamist media outlets
decrying Sanad as a traitor, a heretic and a Zionist.
all, the presumptuous Copt had dared defame the military in which he
refused to serve. For years, the blogger had maintained that Egypt’s
real problems lay not only with Mubarak, but the army establishment from
which he and presidents before him had sprung. The army, he wrote
prophetically at the start of anti-government protests, would be just as
brutal as Mubarak in cracking down on dissent.
On February 4,
Sanad posted a video clip to his blog pleading with Israelis to support
the movement to oust Mubarak – a long-time ally of Jerusalem. “I’m
calling for solidarity from my Israeli friends with the Egyptian
revolution. I believe that democracy and human rights and women’s rights
are basic Israeli values,” he said.
Mubarak, he said, was never a
real friend to Israel, encouraging anti- Semitic incitement in schools
and the media that raised young Egyptians to hate the Jewish state.
“This is a chance to end the cold peace between the two states and to
bring an era of real peace,” he said.
RANDA EL TAHAWY, an
Egyptian journalist and blogger who focuses on women’s issues, said
Sanad’s arrest set a dangerous precedent.
“This is an attempt to
violate freedom of speech,” she said by phone from Cairo. “It’s very sad
because it feels like we didn’t achieve anything when we tried to
overthrow the previous regime that was always putting constraints on our
freedom. It’s a step backward from what we’re trying to achieve, and
that’s freedom and democracy.”
Tahawy is the cousin of Mona
Eltahawy, a prominent New York-based Egyptian columnist and blogger. A
former Reuters correspondent, Eltahawy was the first Egyptian to live
and to work for a Western news agency in Israel, and now writes in a
number of international news outlets including The Jerusalem Report.
Like Sanad, Eltahawy supports normalizing Egypt’s ties with Israel. Her
younger cousin is more conflicted.
Tahawy, 23, visited Eilat for
several days nine years ago with an Egyptian friend whose father was
stationed at the consulate in the city. She recalled the visit fondly.
people were just like us. They were very friendly, even if one or two
people were reluctant [to talk] because I’m Egyptian,” she said. “I know
a lot of people who would really frown upon the fact that I’ve been to
Israel, but I really don’t think it’s a problem. We criticize Israel, we
say it’s our enemy, we say we want to help Palestine, but we don’t
really know anything about Israel.”
Her visit to the country seems to have opened her eyes to Israelis, if not Israel itself.
you grow up in Egypt, you grow up to feel that Israel is the enemy. But
it’s wrong to say that – a lot of Israelis do oppose [the government’s]
policies and aren’t against the Palestinians,” she said, before adding,
“Sixty years of occupation – it’s just a tragedy and an injustice for
the Palestinian people... If the [Israeli-Palestinian conflict] were
resolved and all of the Palestinians’ demands were met, I think we’d be
less reluctant to open our doors to Israel. But at the same time I don’t
think you can erase history.”
She continued, “We can’t say Israel will just disappear.
is a fact, whether I see [its founding] as something that was
illegitimate or unfair or unjust, that’s not the issue now, because it’s
there. The issue now is to ensure that the Palestinians have their
rights and that their demands are met and that they have a home.”
willingness to visit Israel and consider its people on an individual
basis sets her at odds with the vast majority of Egyptians – from
intellectuals to fellahin (peasants) – for whom normalization with the
Jewish state is all but unthinkable.
ON MARCH 25, three days
before his arrest, Sanad wrote a blog post entitled “On Which Side is
“I declared that I want to visit Israel (for two
weeks), to build bridges with Israeli activists,” he wrote. “For the
last four months, Israeli officials are refusing to give me a visa to
Israel. More than 10 activists in Israel are trying to get me one, and
all of them failed... Israel wouldn’t refuse to give Mubarak a visa. So,
the lesson which Israel wants me to learn, that I have to be an enemy
of Israel to be welcomed.”
Sanad’s supporters say his pro-Israel sentiments made him an easy target.
to what most people think, that Maikel’s imprisonment has nothing to do
with his last article about Israel, I think that it was a great excuse
for his imprisonment,” a friend who blogs under the name Kefaya Punk
wrote in an email.
“It is becoming strikingly clear that our militarist leaders don’t want any normalization or peace activism with Israel.”
David Keyes, executive director of Advancing Human Rights and cofounder of CyberDissidents.org,
said Sanad “represents a small but growing part of the blogging
community – pro-secular, pro-Western and even pro-Israel. He has more
than 1,500 followers on Twitter and was active in the protests in Tahrir
Square. He is attractive to many because he is utterly fearless: a
staunch liberal in a deeply conservative society and a fierce critic of
the military, an institution not known for its openness to alternative
Sanad’s videotaped plea now seems prescient.
going now to join my friends in Tahrir Square. I don’t know if I’ll
return home again,” he said. “It’s my duty to call for change and to
demonstrate. I’m calling for solidarity from all our democratic friends
all over the world, and especially our Israeli neighbors and friends.