Just three days after Hosni Mubarak stepped down, while the rest of Egypt celebrated, a 25-year-old blogger made a grim prediction: "I'm a dead man."
An unemployed veterinarian with the telltale stooped posture of an Internet junkie, Maikel Nabil Sanad has had a knack for predictions. Back in the fall, when no one could have imagined that a revolution would bring down the government, he'd been arrested for standing up to the regime and refusing to serve in the military.
In early February, he was arrested again, this time while on his way to a protest in Tahir Square. A few days later, in an online article bristling with exclamation points and outrage, he accused the military officers who detained him of beating and sexually harassing him and his fellow prisoners. "I'm writing this time not to take revenge," he wrote, "but to let people know what would happen to them if this revolution failed."
Now that the revolution appeared to have triumphed, you might think Nabil would have looked down the road and seen freedom. Instead he saw doom. Mubarak was gone, yes, but Nabil's beef had never really been with Mubarak. His "biggest enemy," as he put it in his blog, was the one institution the people trusted, the military.
Sure, the military government that had assumed power in Mubarak's wake was bending over backwards to appease the protesters, and in the streets and squares of Cairo you could still hear shouts of, "The military and the people are as one hand!" But Nabil wasn't buying any of it.
"To all the bullshit said by the army," he wrote, "I say bullshit."
For years, Nabil had been telling anyone who'd listen that Egypt's problems went back further than the beginning of Mubarak's presidency in 1981, to the coup that brought a military government to power in 1952.
The army, he believed, would be just as ruthless as Mubarak in shutting up dissenters, and he knew that saying this publicly -- saying, specifically, that people who spoke out against the military would be arrested and tortured and maybe even killed -- could well turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophesy. As it happened, Nabil's prediction has not come true. Not yet, anyway. He is, as of this writing, alive. Yet his normally noisy blog has been silent since March, and Nabil himself has been hustled out of sight.
What actually happened is this: On March 28, sometime after midnight, military intelligence showed up to his home in the suburbs of Cairo, arrested him, and charged him with "insulting the military establishment" and "spreading false information."
On April 6, a military judge announced that he'd make his ruling after Nabil's lawyers pleaded their case on April 10.
On April 10, the lawyers were told the session had been canceled. But when they arrived at court the next morning and looked at the records, they saw Nabil had in fact been tried the day before, without them present. Nabil was sentenced to three years in prison. Human Rights Watch decried the sentencing as possibly "the worst strike against free expression in Egypt since the Mubarak government jailed the first blogger for four years in 2007."
The specific incitement for Nabil's arrest, it seems, was a March 8 blog entry titled "The Army And The People Were Never One Hand." In the article, Nabil insisted, as he has all along, that the army was loyal to Mubarak even at the height of the demonstrations and forced him out only in order to save face, and he accused other activists and protesters -- some of them personal friends -- of kowtowing to the military in the hopes of securing positions for themselves in the new government.
Most strikingly, he detailed case after case of military officers arresting and beating protesters, or standing by passively while Mubarak's hired thugs did the same. Interspersed throughout the article are videos showing the scarred bodies of protesters who said they'd been tortured.
Nabil certainly isn't the only activist to have argued that, as he put it in that post: "The revolution has so far managed to get rid of the dictator, but not of the dictatorship." In fact, the article draws heavily on cases that had already been documented elsewhere.
Yet it isn't hard to see why the army focused on Nabil in particular. Nabil considered himself not just as a pacifist but also Egypt's "only" pro-Israel activist. His support of Israel was one of the reasons why he refused to serve in the military in the first place -- he said he could not bring himself to "point a gun at an Israeli youth who is defending his country's right to exist."
If the army was looking for someone vulnerable and isolated to punish for the sins of the country, they couldn't have found a better target. In a post dated December 22, 2010, Nabil complained that "every word" he writes about Israel "makes me lose more friends, and gives me thousands of enemies here." It was a characteristically bleak appraisal, punctuated with one of the ubiquitous hieroglyphs of his generation’s revolution: " :( "
Since his sentencing earlier this week, Nabil's circle of friends has expanded. Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois and Congressman Frank Wolf from Virginia wrote the head of the Egyptian military to appeal for Nabil's release; a spokesperson for the State Department said that the U.S. was "deeply concerned."
More urgent expressions of concern have been made on the Internet, where at last count 3,029 people had gone on to the "Free Maikel" Facebook page and clicked "Like." One of them, an actual friend of Nabil's who publishes an activist blog under the pseudonym Kefaya Punk, said in a recent email to The Huffington Post that Nabil's sentencing proves "every word Nabil has ever said about our regime."
"The military council," he said, "wants to annihilate anyone who questions what it does ... That reminds me of how the Catholic church treated its opponents in the medieval ages."
Nabil, he added, "is a very brave man. I'm not as brave as him to reveal my name online."
To this admission he appended a familiar symbol: " :( "
So, if Nabil’s jailing proves that Egypt is still a dictatorship, what does it say about the state of the revolution? Does it mean that February's victory may turn out to be what Hillary Clinton described in a speech on Monday as a "mirage in the desert"?
David Keyes, the director of CyberDissidents.org, a non-partisan organization supporting online activists, said, "This case does not mean that nothing was achieved by ousting Mubarak. It means that the road to freedom is long and difficult."
Nabil, if he could say anything, would most likely agree. He certainly never proclaimed the revolution’s goals to be achieved, but he never showed any signs of abandoning them either. Back in February, he wrote that one of the intelligence officers who arrested him outside Tahir Square warned him that the military would allow him only "three steps." The first step he'd taken months before, when he was arrested for dodging the draft. This most recent arrest counted as the second step. And the third?
"He didn't tell me what will happen to me in the third step," Nabil wrote. "That's why there shouldn't be a third time. This revolution must win."