Who is this skinny guy, with his thick shock of swept-back hair, and what makes him think he can lecture American policymakers so impertinently? Well, Nabil earned his Washington meetings the hard way: by spending 302 days in prison during the past year. He had the distinction of being the first person jailed on political charges after the downfall of Hosni Mubarak supposedly put an end to dictatorship in Egypt.
Nabil turned out to be right about where the Egyptian generals were headed. In March of last year, just weeks after the revolution, the activist posted an essay on his blog contending that, contrary to the slogan shouted in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the revolution, “the Army and the people were never one hand.” In deposing Mubarak, Nabil argued, the military was merely protecting its own interests — and seeking to preserve its preeminent position of power in Egypt.
For writing this, Nabil was arrested, hauled before a special military court and summarily sentenced to three years in prison, for “insulting the armed forces.” At first, few Egyptians supported him: Like the Obama administration, they believed that the Supreme Military Council that replaced Mubarak was committed to establishing a democracy and yielding to civilians.
Moreover, Nabil was an outlier, even among Egypt’s secular democrats. He is not just of Coptic Christian origin but an avowed atheist; not just anti-military, but a conscientious objector who refused to serve; not just pro-Western, but pro-Israel — a stance than almost no one in Egypt dares to espouse.
“There are still 20 beliefs in Egypt that are considered crimes,” Nabil told me. When I asked how many of them he held, he grinned: “Probably the majority of them.”
Yet over the course of his imprisonment last year — as the military staged thousands more summary trials, censored the press, tolerated the sacking of the Israeli embassy, opened fire on a peaceful march by Christians, and finally raided and shut down pro-democracy nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) — “people realized that I was right,” Nabil said. “Lots of people moved to my side and started to support me. I turned into a hero — and the military hated to see their opponent turned into a hero.” In January, after 130 days of a hunger strike, Nabil was released.
Now he is trying to explain to Americans why it is wrong to continue funding the generals. Start, he says, with the first sentence of the State Department’s explanation, that Egypt “is meeting its obligations under its peace treaty with Israel.” Actually, Nabil points out, the military is systematically whipping up hostility to Israel inside Egypt and using the treaty to “blackmail both Egyptians and U.S. taxpayers” by hinting that the loss of aid — or a democratic government’s control of the military — will mean its rupture.
What about the “strategic partnership” that State says it wants to preserve with Egypt? “Another lie,” says Nabil: How can a military council that is lacing state media with vile anti-American propaganda and prosecuting U.S. NGOs be a strategic partner?
Most dangerous, says Nabil, is the administration’s conviction that Egypt is headed toward democracy. In fact, he says, “the same dictatorship of the last 60 years is still in power.” Even if the generals hand over titular authority in July to an elected president, as promised, “they will continue to be the most powerful force in Egypt. They control 40 percent of the economy. They have about one-third of the budget. They control the media and the judiciary. They have five intelligence agencies.”
U.S. aid — especially when granted unconditionally — simply reinforces the military’s position and encourages the persecution of genuine pro-American liberals such as Nabil. His D.C. escorts said that the officials he met didn’t say much in answer to him. Perhaps they were ashamed.