Profile

The Army and the People Were Never One Hand

Maikel Nabil, the atheist, pro-Israel Egyptian writer who was released from prison today, was right all along.

CAIRO - In a country that has seen its fair share of polarizing figures since the fall of octogenarian autocrat Hosni Mubarak, Maikel Nabil Sanad might be Egypt's ultimate iconoclast. The 26-year-old veterinary school graduate hails from the country's Coptic Christian minority, supports secularism, loudly proclaims his atheism, and condemns the Coptic pope's hypocrisy. He calls himself a feminist and is open to gay rights. And in a country where support for Israel is the third rail of politics for mainstream politicians and street activists alike, Nabil proudly self-identifies as "pro-Israel."

But on one issue, Nabil's convictions have become steadily less controversial. In the revolution's earliest days, he criticized the army's political takeover in Cairo. While most Egyptians were still chanting, "The Army and the people are one hand," Nabil cautioned that the military was no ally of the protesters -- a warning that, after a year that has seen a stalled democratic transition and over 12,000 Egyptians sentenced in military tribunals, appears remarkably prescient.

Nabil's attacks on the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) led to his arrest on March 28 on charges of "insulting the military." For more than 130 days of his detention, Nabil went on a hunger strike to protest his treatment -- living on juice and milk, at times coming close to death. For months, he was kept in solitary confinement in a one meter by one meter cell and, even after he was transferred to a group cell in Tora Prison in December, the conditions were still cramped and unsanitary, according to his younger brother Mark.

On Saturday, SCAF chief Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi pardoned Nabil, along with 1,959 other prisoners subjected to military trials. Adel al-Mursi, the head of the military prosecution, said that the decision to pardon the detainees was taken to commemorate the revolution's anniversary. He was released on Jan. 24, flashing the "V" for victory signs to photographers as he marched out of prison.

While Nabil's release was greeeted with joy by the Egyptian activist communisty, he has not always been embraced by Cairo's revolutionaries -- to say nothing of  Egypt's broader population. He was arrested at his home in the Ain Shams neighborhood of northern Cairo for writing a blog post on March 8 titled "The army and people wasn't ever one hand." The blog post describes how the army worked constantly to "circumvent the demands of the revolution," exhaustively listing examples of the military's torture of activists, its attempts to forcibly evict protesters from Tahrir Square, and its "passive neutrality" during attacks on demonstrators by thugs. "In fact, the revolution has so far managed to get rid of the dictator but not the dictatorship," Nabil wrote.

Such views were decidedly out of the mainstream in the revolution's early days. On Jan. 28, when the Egyptian military deployed across Cairo, most people greeted the men in khaki and camouflage as saviors because, unlike the police, they did not attack protesters. Young men posed for photographs in front of tanks, families asked soldiers to hold their babies, old women kissed uniformed military police on the cheek.

Nabil never bought into the "one hand" rhetoric. On Jan. 30, he went to Tahrir Square carrying a sign that read, "We refuse to allow the army to steal the people's revolution."

While most activists saw Hosni Mubarak and his cronies as their primary target, Nabil, a pacifist, bore a grudge against the Egyptian armed forces that stretched back before the revolution. In November 2010, he was briefly arrested for his campaign against compulsory conscription. "I hope that the day comes when the Egyptian military goes back to its barracks and to stop interfering in politics, so Egypt would be transformed into a civilian country without powers of military people on civilians," he wrote in October 2010.

The past year's events have brought many Egyptians around to Nabil's point of view. In addition to the widespread use of military trials, the military's security forces have killed scores of civilians and injured hundreds more since February. The political transition has also been ill-defined and characterized by backroom deals, as the military junta looks to entrench its power and prevent oversight of their activities. This month, Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and a leading voice of the revolution, withdrew from the presidential race in protest of the military's grip on power.

Egypt's military leaders sought to quell public discontent by cracking down hard on its most implacable critics -- and Nabil, though hardly the only activist raising concerns about the junta's rule, made the perfect target because of his idiosyncratic views.

"The regime before and after the revolution always functioned with setting examples. So they set an example and it was very astute on their part to take this guy who they knew no one would support," Aalam Wassef, an activist who organized calls for Nabil's release, told me a few days before news came that his sentence would be commuted.

Egyptian state media and SCAF statements pushed a narrative that the persistent protests were part of a foreign plot, and the protesters were no longer the true revolutionaries that took to the streets during the first 18 days. "Maikel was the dream case," Wassef said. "He was an activist, he was an atheist, he was supportive of Israel. They didn't even need to put any subtitles."

His thoughts on Israel also did little to win him much support among Cairo's activist community -- a development Wassef called "disappointing." Nabil's case was, for the most part, not talked about for months. Alaa Abd El Fattah, a prominent activist who became a cause célèbre after being arrested in October, has energetically rallied support in favor of Nabil's release. However, when asked on Twitter how revolutionaries would welcome Nabil once he was free, he responded on Jan. 21, "[H]e is a zionist, my support for him ends when he is finally released."

Over time, many activists did warm to Nabil's cause. In December, as Nabil escalated his hunger strike, Wassef and others launched a campaign to gather support for him, organizing a march in Tahrir Square that saw more than 1,000 people attend.

"He's courageous to express his ideas that are unacceptable to the extremists," a friend of Maikel's, an unemployed 24-year-old who blogs under the pseudonym Kefaya Punk, said. "Some people, because of the propaganda against him, think he's the kind of guy who wants to show off, that he says his ideas to become famous. But he's not." (Kefaya Punk doesn't want his real name published. "I'm not as courageous as Maikel," he told me over cups of anise tea at a sidewalk café in downtown Cairo.)

Prison has done nothing to slow Nabil's pen. Throughout the past 10 months, he has composed dozens of statements -- written in his thoughtful, at times lawyerly, style -- that were smuggled out and posted on the Internet. His brother Mark, who often speaks on Maikel's behalf, said it is a secret how the statements made it out of prison. The statements ranged from scattered "fragments," covering everything from vegetarianism to Lisa Simpson, to longer meditations on Israel and Palestine or letters to SCAF members.

In one dispatch from prison, Nabil addresses the age-old issue of balancing an individual's rights against the good of society -- a particularly meaningful issue for someone like himself, whose views are often at odds with those of most Egyptians. "In my lectures on liberalism I always said that if the individual was at odds with society, as liberals we should take the side of the individual against society," he wrote.

While Nabil's stay in prison has ended, the same cannot be said for the more than 10,000 other Egyptians jailed under the questionable authority of Egypt's military tribunals. Early on the morning of Jan. 22, roughly 20 of Nabil's friends and supporters -- reacting to reports that Nabil's release was imminent -- gathered outside the ragged walls of the Tora Prison complex on the southern outskirts of Cairo. Mark Nabil, shivering against the cold wind, answered incessant calls from prison officials, human rights lawyers, and journalists. The crowd wore stickers bearing the slogan he carried to Tahrir almost a year ago: "We refuse the military's theft of the people's revolution."

"When we were saying the army and the people are one hand, Maikel was writing the opposite," said Marina Kamel, a 25-year-old young woman waiting outside the prison who has never met Nabil personally. "I came to say thank you for the information."

MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images

Profile

The Imran Khan Phenomenon

Is Pakistan’s cricket star-turned-politician for real?

In 1992, with his cricket career at its twilight, an aging Imran Khan boldly pledged that the Pakistani national team would win the World Cup for the first time. In March of that year, before a packed stadium in Melbourne, Pakistan defeated former colonial master England, taking the cup and shocking the world of cricket. Khan returned home with a trophy in his hands, enshrined forever as a national hero.

These days, Khan leads another group of underdogs: a political party known as the Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI). Last September, Khan made a familiarly bold prediction: PTI, which has only won a single National Assembly seat in its 15-year history, will sweep the next general elections. PTI, Khan says without a semblance of doubt, will rid Pakistan of corruption, endemic poverty, and violence -- and eventually bring the country to what he sees as its rightful place on the world stage.

Since his retirement from cricket, Khan has been devoted to social work and politics. Inspired by his mother's death, he founded the world-class Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital and Research Center, trusted and respected by Pakistanis of all stripes. Khan's political career, however, has been another story. PTI, despite the initial hype and fanfare, never really took off. Its founding members left the scene early on, and Khan was regularly outsmarted by wilier politicos.

A solitary Khan would regularly lambast the political class on Pakistan's many talk shows. Critics dismissed him as the darling of the country's television anchors and the electorally irrelevant "burger-baby" and "mummy-daddy" types (i.e. coddled, Westernized, rootless, upper-middle class youth). Political satire shows lampooned him as a raving, repetitive political loser.

In 2005, Sheikh Rashid Ahmad, then a backer of military ruler Pervez Musharraf, mocked Khan and patronizingly offered to help him win a seat "anywhere he wants." Fast forward six years ahead, and Sheikh Rashid, seated next to Khan on live television, was ingratiatingly referring to the ex-cricketer as a "brother" and meekly asking him for help in winning a few seats in the next elections.

Once an electoral non-entity, Khan's PTI could potentially win dozens of National Assembly seats in the next polls -- hence the Pauline conversion of opportunists like Sheikh Rashid. Already, PTI has upended the détente between the two major political powers -- the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) -- and put both on the defensive. PTI might become the country's third-largest party, giving it the power to determine who heads Pakistan's next coalition government. Khan, no longer a political joke, is a potential kingmaker positioned to prove the doubters wrong once again.

Pakistan's political class began to take PTI seriously last fall as the party organized a series of large rallies in Punjab, the country's largest province and home to its most competitive elections. In late October, PTI beat all expectations and gathered more than 100,000 people in Lahore, the home turf of the PML-N. The jalsa, or gathering, was a smartly choreographed and nationally televised spectacle, featuring religious conservatives, students from the city's elite schools, and well-to-do housewives. Together, they listened to rousing speeches by politicians and musical performances by the country's top pop artists, and sang the national anthem. An article in the web edition of Pakistan's Express Tribune declared, "Imran Khan's 'tsunami' sweeps Lahore." In Lahore, Khan proved he was able to mobilize large numbers of potential voters in a key constituency, signaling to political free agents that his party has a fundraising and logistical network that can get out the vote on Election Day.

Despite his newfound success, the core of Khan's message has remained the same over the years. He has railed against what he describes as a corrupt, venal political class and an invasive, bullying America. In 1996, he called Asif Ali Zardari, then Pakistan's first husband, the country's "biggest disease." He continues to describe Zardari, now the president, as a major impediment to Pakistan's progress. In 2004, Khan opposed Pakistani military operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, warning that once a war with the local tribes begins, "the entire army will be stuck in the tribal areas forever." In 2011, he was instrumental in forging a consensus statement at an all-parties conference that called for talks with the Taliban.

With tensions rising with the United States and a faltering economy, Khan is striking a chord in Pakistan unlike ever before. Pakistanis, ravaged by the scourge of terrorism during the decade after 9/11, saw themselves as casualties of America's war in Afghanistan. Now, after an ugly downturn in U.S.-Pakistan relations in 2011 -- including the humiliating Abbottabad raid to capture Osama bin Laden -- many believe America's actual target is Pakistan itself.

Khan's supporters see him as the most credible advocate for ending Islamabad's support of America's wars in Pakistan and Afghanistan. While other politicians have publicly condemned U.S. action in Pakistan, WikiLeaks cables demonstrate that they tend to speak more approvingly to U.S. officials in private. In contrast, Khan seems to have delivered the same message to the street and the State Department.

At the heart of PTI's sudden rise is the confluence of an effective narrative, a charismatic and credible evangelist, and fortuitous timing. As Pakistan's ties with the United States have worsened, so have problems with its economy and government. The consumer price index is close to the teens, putting great strain on the average Pakistani's finances. The state-owned airlines, railways, and steel mills bleed billions of dollars a year. Prolonged electricity blackouts have continued for their sixth straight year, hammering local industries.

To fix all this, Khan promises to make Pakistan an "Islamic welfare state" where the government promotes justice and equity, is devoid of corruption, and offers social services to the poor. Pakistan, Khan says, should emulate non-Western economic success stories, such as Mahathir Mohammed's Malaysia, Lee Kuan Yew's Singapore, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Turkey.

For his supporters, Khan is a symbol of what can go right in a country that has seen so much wrong. And he is seen as a leader who has promised victory when the odds were against him and has regularly come through in the clutch. When Khan announced his plans to build a cancer hospital, it was dismissed as "unworkable idea," according to Pakistani commentator Tariq Bashir. But "like Imran Khan's cricketing career," Bashir writes, the institution has become a "surprising success stor[y]."

With anti-incumbent sentiment running high as voters blame the country's two largest parties for the ugly status quo, Khan is the perfect candidate for Pakistanis sick of the usual suspects or skeptical about whether democracy even works for Pakistan. The two major parties are seen by many as having been tried, tested, and failed. The PPP rules at the center, while the PML-N runs Punjab, the largest province. Each has had two previous shots at running the country since 1988.

PTI has shaken up Pakistani politics. Since the Lahore rally, PTI's rivals have tried to emulate the party's use of social media, youth outreach, and even the musical interludes during speeches. Some reports even claim that the PTI challenge has forced the country's two major parties to reposition and mutually obstruct Khan's advance.

Meanwhile, droves of electable politicians, including three former foreign ministers, have defected from Pakistan's major political parties to join the PTI. The new entrants include many members of the previous army-backed government under Musharraf, causing the PTI central vice president to resign in protest.

Khan says he can't find angels to join PTI. He's right. For years he sought unsuccessfully to build the party from the bottom up. When he founded his party, he pledged to bring in a new class of politician to supplant the "predatory" politicians who have "sieged" Pakistan's system. 

But Pakistani voters tend to be pragmatic rent-seekers, siding with the candidate they feel will most effectively channel state resources their way. Khan needs politicians with a track record of winning. The party also benefits from the experience brought by an influx of established politicians, who can help add depth to the party's policy agenda.

And yet, however necessary, PTI's recruitment of established politicians challenges its claim that it is in pursuit of tabdeeli, or change. It will have to leverage Khan's leadership and clean image to counterbalance the growing perception that it is old wine in a new bottle. If PTI fails to do so, it will find it difficult to hold on to young and upper-middle class supporters, traditional non-voters who see Khan as their favorite anti-politician politician.

In the coming weeks and months, PTI will develop its election manifesto. This will be an opportunity for Khan and company to explain how they will address Pakistan's structural weaknesses. PTI will have to articulate its plans to increase government revenue and reduce federal debt, salvage sinking government-owned corporations, lower dependence on natural gas and increase the efficiency of the electricity grid, attract foreign direct investment and boost domestic economic growth, deal with militants who do not lay down their arms and continue their war against the state, and find a place for Pakistan in a rising Asia -- beyond making endearing platitudes to China.

None of Pakistan's problems can be solved overnight. They require not just bold leadership, but quiet skills developed with political experience, such as the ability to assemble coalitions and build consensus. As much as Khan rails against the system, in the event PTI leads the next governing coalition, he will need allies in the bureaucracy, military, and parliament to push his agenda through. Democracy skeptics and politicians who have jumped on the PTI bandwagon could leave as quickly they have joined. And Khan's political opponents might lack the capability or will to solve Pakistan's problems, but they are certainly able to prevent him from doing so.

Imran Khan describes his party's rise as a "tsunami" engulfing the nation's politics. For the first time, PTI will likely have the numbers to influence government policy after elections are held sometime this year. With political success comes great responsibility. If Khan and PTI fail to rise to the challenge, their tsunami will be nothing but a natural disaster.

AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images