In Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial, an ambitious young bank clerk wakes up “one fine morning” to find himself under arrest. The authorities are faceless, the Law is invisible, and the prosecuting Court is accountable to no one.
No wonder the book became a lifeline for Mikael Nabil, an Egyptian blogger who last week was released from prison following a 10-month spell behind bars.
“It was marvelous,” said the 26-year-old, speaking to The Daily Beast shortly after being freed. He said Kafka’s book was one of many novels that got him through his time in prison, adding: “It shows the mentality which normal people think by, how they deal with religions, dangers, and things which make them lose their lives.”
Nabil was jailed last April after criticizing Egypt’s ruling generals in a blog post. He subsequently become a high-profile prisoner of conscience and one of the most notorious victims of the government’s military-court system—the widely hated tool of martial law used to process thousands of activists last year.
But in his first major interview since being released, he criticized his fellow Egyptian activists and accused the protest movement of deserting him. “I cannot forget how people have ignored me,” he said. “When they abandoned me, lots of other activists were arrested. If people had stood with me, then none of the others would have been tried in military courts.”
Nabil also said his experience behind bars would not prevent him from challenging the generals in the future. “The military has stolen 10 months of my life,” he said. “I have to keep speaking and telling people what I know and what should be done in Egypt."
During his time in prison, Nabil went on a hunger strike. For a period of 130 days, he said, he lived on nothing but fruit juice and water, being bounced between a hospital ward and solitary confinement in his grimy, cockroach-ridden cell.
The young blogger, who trained as a vet but is now studying law at Cairo University, said his one-bed cell in Cairo’s El-Marg Prison was the same cell that once housed Ayman Nofel, the senior Hamas commander who escaped during the uprising last year. “The Egyptian regime was treating me like a terrorist,” said Nabil, stirring his cappuccino in a cafe in Zamalek, the upmarket island on the Nile.
Yet if his lonely experience in prison could be called Kafkaesque, then so too could his life before he was sentenced.
Nabil is everything your average Egyptian is not. An avowed atheist in a devoutly Muslim country; a vocal supporter of Israel in a country where opposition to Zionism runs deep; and a conscientious objector among a people that, even now, still reveres its army. His is a lonely, pariah voice that many cannot come to terms with.
According to one NGO worker, Nabil’s iconoclasm is the reason his case never garnered much in the way of popular support beyond a select group of human-rights organizations. “It was one thing,” she said simply. “He is pro-Israel.”
A journalist at his post-release press conference noted the difference between Nabil’s reception and that garnered by Alaa Abd el-Fattah, another blogger who was detained in October and then freed two months later. El-Fattah’s conferences before he was released were punctuated by revolutionary chanting from the gallery. Nabil got polite applause—then silence.
One only has to look at some of his previous blog posts—where he declares his “love” for Israel and announces his intention to visit the Knesset—to see why mainstream backing was hard to come by.
Yet Nabil, formerly a Coptic Christian, is unapologetic. “For every philosopher who has a new idea, or who tries to spread a new idea, there will always be people who oppose it,” he explained, saying his initial misgivings about the military abuses had been proved right over the past year. “I think the same will happen with the Israeli issue.”
Yet in marked contrast to some of his more fulsome appraisals of the Jewish state, Nabil’s time in prison seems to have blunted his rhetorical edge. “I consider myself a friend of the Israeli people, not of the Israeli government,” he said, perhaps mindful of how unpopular his views have made him.
“The Netanyahu government is destroying any chance of peace with the Palestinians,” he added.
Nabil’s release, which came 10 months into a three-year sentence, was just one of 1,900 pardons granted to jailed activists by the Military Council to mark one year since the uprising of Jan. 25, 2011.
The ruling generals have promised to hand over power no later than June 30, following presidential elections and the drafting of a new constitution by the Muslim Brotherhood–dominated Parliament.
Monitors who oversaw the recent elections to Egypt’s People’s Assembly said that although there were flaws in the system and infringements had been detected, the irregularities did not affect the final result.
Nabil disagrees, saying he believes there are “hundreds of questions” about the voting, such as the refusal to allow in international observers and alleged malpractice by Islamist parties.
Neither is he confident about the ruling Military Council’s willingness to hand over power after six decades in the political driver's seat.
“We’re going in the wrong direction,” he said. “The military is making us worse every day.
“I don’t think the Military Council will leave on its own. We have to put it under continuous pressure to make sure it leaves.”