Egypt in Flux: A young pacifist versus the Egyptian army

Branded a traitor and Zionist, Maikel Nabil Sanad, a pro-Israel blogger, was sentenced to three years in jail by Egypt’s ruling military council.

MAIKEL NABIL SANAD (photo credit: courtesty)
(photo credit: courtesty)
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 uniformly pejorative.
IN OCTOBER, Sanad announced he would refuse to serve his mandatory military service.
“Recruitment 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.
Worst of 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.
“The 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.
“When 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.
Israel 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.”
Tahawy’s 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 Israel standing?”
“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.
“Contrary 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, 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 views.”
Sanad’s videotaped plea now seems prescient.
“I’m 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. Goodbye.”