Human rights activist Maikel Nabil was the first political prisoner in post-revolution Egypt. This Sunday, the pro-Israeli dissident made his first public appearance in Jerusalem, calling for Arab-Israeli reconciliation and trying to draw attention to Arab peace activists across the region.
Nabil, hailed by some as “the Hero of Tahrir,” said he respects the Likud for being the party that made peace with Egypt in 1979, but lambasted the current government as “racist” and called on Israelis to replace it in the upcoming elections. That did not prevent a number of pro-Palestinian students from heckling him during his Jerusalem address, shouting, “The Egyptian revolution hates you!”
“I’m here to say we, the peace community and peace activists in Egypt, exist; even if the media or some regimes are trying to pretend that we don’t exist,” Nabil, 27, said. “I represent an Egyptian peace movement. I’ve been active in favor of peace and demilitarization in Egypt for four years now . We are acting against war and for peace, and vocally speak out for peace with all countries, including Israel.”
The Egyptian peace movement believes that there can be no real democracy without peace with Israel, and vice versa.
“Our fates are linked together,” said Nabil. “And as long as dictatorship and authoritarian governments take our freedoms and our rights for the sake of security, we will be losing our rights, we will be moving backwards. And we need to solve the peace issue in order for my people and Arab-speaking countries to become democracies, and for Israel to be able to co-exist in peace in the Middle East.”
‘The Egyptian dictatorship’s propaganda is trying to hide our existence and to portray the Egyptian people as anti-Israel. That’s against the facts and against reality’
An avid blogger, who also writes for The Times of Israel, Nabil became known in Egypt in 2009 as the country’s first conscientious objector, when he founded a movement against military conscription. In 2011, he actively participated in the protests on Tahrir Square, during which he was arrested several times. Nabil continued speaking out against the regime even after then-president Hosni Mubarak was ousted, and was arrested again. He was sentenced to a three-year prison term for insulting the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took power after Mubarak was deposed and before current leader Mohammed Morsi came to power. After 302 days in prison, during which he says he was tortured and sexually abused, he started a hunger strike, which lasted for 130 days. Several human rights organization declared him a prisoner of conscience, and thanks to international pressure Cairo’s military rulers pardoned him in January 2012.
“Maikel is a hero. He sacrificed his freedom and almost his life for the cause of human rights and for the cause of peace and in the Middle East, between Egypt and Israel, between Arab and Israelis, and for peace worldwide,” said Hillel Neuer, the head of UN Watch, the Geneva-based pro-Israel NGO that sponsored Nabil’s trip to Israel.
Nabil, who currently lives in Erfurt, Germany, where he is completing his master’s degree in public policy, is extremely critical of the current government in Cairo led by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsi. Though on the same day he spoke in Jerusalem, nearly two thirds of Egyptians accepted an Islamist-backed constitution rejected by secular activists, he asserted that the majority of his compatriots oppose religious fundamentalism. Morsi would soon fall and a democratic regime would rise instead, he predicted confidently.
“The Egyptian dictatorship’s propaganda is trying to hide our existence and to [portray] the Egyptian people as anti-Israel,” he said about the pro-peace camp. He asserted that a similar phenomenon exists in Israel regarding local peace activists.
“We exist everywhere: in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Libya, Morocco, Mauritania, and the media doesn’t cover us. It focuses only on the negative things. But we exist, we exist in Israel and Arab-speaking countries, and we seek peace in nonviolent ways and we are not happy with the picture our governments are trying to draw of the Middle East as a completely hostile and violent area.”
Speaking to an overflow crowd at the Hebrew University’s Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace, Nabil retold his experiences fighting the Egyptian authorities and spoke of his personal views, which include a strong dislike for religion and nationalism of all stripes. When he posited that Arab nationalism and Zionism “need each other” to protect their respective identities, and that to achieve peace both sides need to “overcome nationalism,” a handful of Arab-Israeli students interrupted him, shouting “Shame on you!” and “The Egyptian revolution hates you!” until they were shown the door by security personnel.
“I believe the majority of my people don’t want war with Israel,” he had said earlier, noting that Egyptians feel strongly about the Palestinians’ plight and are interested in “nonviolent ways to pressure Israel to respect Palestinian rights.” Abbas is a “good partner for peace,” he added, criticizing Israel’s plans to expand construction in the West Bank and recent statements by Jerusalem attacking the international community and specifically the European Union.
“We should differentiate between being supportive of Palestinian rights and being anti-Israel,” he said.
“Supporting a country’s right to exist doesn’t mean that I have to agree with everything,” he told The Times of Israel. “I have issues with militarization in Israel, with seeing guns everywhere, and I have issues about the areas where religion and state are mixed together. I understand the background of the Middle East that has led to this situation but I believe that my country and Israel, both countries together, can achieve more secularism and more separation of state and religion.”
After he arrived in Israel late last week, Nabil, a declared secularist, visited the grave of late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, but said he refuses to meet with clergy and to visit religious holy places. “Religions have been always part of the problem, not part of the solution,” he wrote in The Times of Israel earlier this month. “Fighting wars, racism and violence obligates me to avoid their causes, and religions are on the top of them.”
Nabil, who was nominated this year for the Nobel Peace Price, is also critical of Israel for having supported Mubarak’s authoritarian regime and for not siding with the activists of the Tahrir Square revolution and denigrating the Arab Spring in general.
“I believe it was a very important time in history,” he said. “And if the Israeli government had dealt with the situation in a different way, it could have been one of the greatest things to happen to Israel and the Middle East.”
In a time when Israel should have reached out to establish relations with Middle Eastern countries, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chose to support dictatorships, he charged.
Earlier last week, Nabil tweeted that he hates “Netanyahu’s Israel” and that “Israel need[s] to get rid of its racist government.” In a third tweet, he said that as a conscientious objector, he supports “Israelis who are acting against [the] IDF.”
“As an Egyptian I respect that the Likud was the party that made peace with Egypt and I don’t deny peace is on the agenda of the Likud party,” he told The Times of Israel. “But when Likud chose to enter a coalition with extremist parties and allowed it to force an extremist agenda on Israel — I believe that’s dangerous for Israel, and for the whole Middle East.”
“Israel for the last six decades was trying to exist in the Middle East,” he said. “I’d like to see Israel co-exist in the Middle East.”