Maikel Nabil Sanad, the first Egyptian blogger sentenced to prison after Hosni Mubarak was ousted from power, waged a 120-day hunger strike behind bars. He was finally released in late January and recently traveled to the United States for the first time. David Keyes sat down with the famed Egyptian activist to talk about the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, U.S. policy, and the future of liberalism in Egypt.
Maikel, it’s been well over a year since the fall of the Mubarak regime. How has the last year been for you and Egypt?
The last year has been very hard because many activists died or were injured. We had perhaps 1,000 or 2,000 activists die within the last year, killed by policemen and armed forces. Nearly 50,000 activists were injured during the last year. Yet democracy and human-rights activists grew in numbers. Many people sacrificed their safety and lives to try to reform Egypt into a free country where citizens can live in a democracy with human rights and dignity.
During your 10 months in prison, what gave you hope?
What gave me hope was that I believe that my people will understand everything in the end, that the government wanted to silence me to prevent my people from hearing my voice. But they couldn’t do it because I was writing even from inside my prison. I gave my articles illegally to my friends to publish while I was in jail. Maybe people can’t have the sources of information that I had and have only media channels controlled by the state and by the Army, but gradually they understand. Every day I find more Egyptians who are talking to me and apologizing, saying I was right from the beginning and they were wrong, and they are converting to my side.
When my country and people had free elections, we voted for liberal parties. When Sadat held a referendum on the peace treaty, the majority voted for the peace treaty, not against it. So I believe in my people and that they seek development and peace. I understand that they can’t find free media channels to provide them with the good and right information needed to make decisions. But the Internet and new media are changing this. It might take years, but in the end they will realize the facts. And I know that no free country was born or created as a free country; people have to sacrifice for freedom and for human rights. And I am able and willing to make these sacrifices for the good of my people and for the good of humanity.
What is the biggest threat to human rights in Egypt today?
Dictatorship in all of its colors. A military dictatorship, an oligarchical dictatorship, and a religious dictatorship are all the same thing. It is someone prepared to sacrifice his own people for personal power. That’s the biggest threat to human rights in Egypt.
Why is liberalism so weak in Egypt?
It is not weak. When Egypt had a free election, liberals used it to gain a majority in the Parliament during the first half of the 20th century, from 1923 when the Constitution securing representative government was written. It lasted for three decades until the junta of 1952, when the Army abolished Egyptian democracy. For three decades, we had a free, liberal democracy and liberal parties. We had the Wafd Party, which used to get about 90 percent of the votes; Egyptians were voting for liberal parties. So I believe that liberals in Egypt are a majority under a complete oppression and continuous threat.
How can you say that when the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamists now control the overwhelming majority of the Parliament?
Because it was not a free election. It was a corrupt election, and it doesn’t represent the voters and all the Egyptian people. When I speak about a free and democratic election, I don’t speak only about the voting procedures, but I speak also about the environment before the voting process.
What advice would you give on Western policy in the Middle East?
Western countries tend to focus only on the Israeli-Palestinian issue and focus less on the internal relations in Egypt and Syria and other Middle Eastern countries. I think I represent a new stream, or an existing stream but one that is not heard loudly in local media. I and other peace and liberal activists in Egypt feel ignored by Western countries. It is strange when I see a Western embassy in Egypt inviting communists and Islamists to their events and ignoring liberals and pro-peace activists. If Western governments listened to more voices, they would understand it is in the interest of their people to have democracy and human rights in the Middle East. And that dictatorships in the Middle East are supporting international terrorism and fighting international peace.
Officials in the Muslim Brotherhood have told me that women and minorities will have full rights under their rule.
I think Hamas is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and we saw with our own eyes what happened to women in Gaza when Hamas rules. So I don’t have to believe what they are saying when I can see with my own eyes what they can do in my country. And we already know what Egypt looked like before the rise of Islamism, and we can see pictures of Egyptian women before the junta of 1952 or before the rise of Islamism in the ’70s. We can compare between those pictures and see what happened to Egyptian women, how they are now oppressed by Islamism.
What role did the Internet play in your activism?
The Internet was a way for me to overcome the information siege imposed on me by the military. They prevented me from sharing my ideas with my fellow Egyptians. They prevented me from being on the news; they prevented me from expressing my opinions in local newspapers; and then they prohibited the international newspapers from interviewing me because I was not well known in the local media. The Internet fixed this and helped me share my ideas with anyone around the world without having to use the local media, which is controlled by the Egyptian regime.
The military intended to silence me and isolate me from the world. They didn’t want me to write anything to the free world and they didn’t want me to receive anything from the world. I used to ask my brother to bring to me everything I need to read about what’s happening outside. They didn’t even allow me to get newspapers while I was in prison, so he was buying me daily newspapers in Egypt and printing blogs, important articles, and letters from friends.
I was allowed only one visit every two weeks, so when he came to visit, he brought me these papers and I used to read them in the moment he handed them to me. I would spend two weeks not knowing anything about what was happening outside. And in those papers I knew about everything that was done for my freedom. In jail I read about CyberDissidents.org's campaigns for my release. This information helped me not feel alone. It helped me feel that there are many freedom fighters defending my cause. This helped me to continue fighting against the military and not give up. I am so grateful to CyberDissidents.org because at a time when many Egyptian activists were arguing whether to support me or not due to my opinions, you said that I have the right to be free whatever my opinions. I hope human rights groups in Egypt can be as committed to human rights.