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.