CAIRO - Hosni Mubarak may be gone, but the autocratic methods he used to maintain his power in Egypt survive. So, it seems, does the public mentality that underpinned the dictatorship for so long.
In April, the blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad was sentenced to three years in jail for "insulting the military" in a blog post entitled "The army and the people were never one hand" - a reference to a popular revolutionary chant suggesting that the army and people are "one hand," or united. Amnesty International regards Sanad as the first prisoner of conscience of post-revolutionary Egypt. He is now being assessed by psychiatrists who will decide whether he can appeal his case on the grounds that he is "mentally disturbed."
The military's position has been regrettable but also predictable. It is the public's hostility toward the victim of the junta's vendetta that is more troubling. Going by conversations I've had on the street and reactions in the talkback sections of the Arabic press, it seems that many Egyptians are happy to see Sanad in jail, mainly for "crimes" he hasn't actually been charged with.
To many Egyptians, Sanad is seen as a traitor, both to his religion and his country. Indeed, so grave has Sanad's breaking of social taboos been that one could easily surmise that his political and religious beliefs have largely been formed in opposition to what Egyptian society expects of him.
Sanad's first crime was the rejection of his Coptic faith and embrace of atheism. The social stigma that comes with having a family member who is openly atheist was evident in an interview I recently conducted with Sanad's father, Nabil, who has left his home in the south for Cairo to fight for his son's release. His desire to see his son freed was plain, but on this point his tone changed. He would "rather see Maikel die than to call him an atheist," he said.
Atheism is just the first of Sanad's sins. After graduating from university, he was imprisoned briefly after refusing to be conscripted into the army. When he didn't give in, the military ruled him mentally unfit for service. Afterward, he started a Facebook group called "no to military service" and campaigned for the option of "civilian service" instead.
Then there are his views on Israel. Sanad has described himself as Egypt's only pro-Israeli activist, but this statement seems more designed to arouse controversy than to reflect his own political opinions. Upon reading his blog it becomes clear that his admiration for Israel is based largely on its democratic culture. His slightly incoherent postings on the Palestinian issue seem to blame the Israeli right for a lack of progress toward peace.
But the subtleties of his political opinions seem to have been lost on the wider Egyptian public. In the talkbacks under articles about Sanad, the notion of treachery comes up continuously. When I describe his case to Egyptians unfamiliar with it (it is not often mentioned in the Arabic press ), their initial bewilderment disappears when I tell them he describes himself as "pro-Israeli."
What this case shows is that in the current phase in Egypt's political development, in the eyes of the public, an individual's right to freedom of expression is secondary to the more important notion of loyalty. Sanad is deemed guilty of the two worst kinds of apostasy: against both his religion and his state. While Sanad himself is at times guilty of exaggeration and self-promotion, people seem incapable of dealing with his views except through hyperbole.
Under Mubarak, Egyptians were kept in a constant state of fear that terrorists or foreign infiltrators were at work to bring about the destruction of their country. This myth allowed the old regime to indefinitely extend the Emergency Law, under which suspects could be detained without trial and political protest was made illegal.
The remnants of this climate of fear and the historical animosity between Israel and Egypt mean that the threat Sanad poses to Egyptian national security has been blown out of all proportion. The army played on these fears by claiming shortly after Sanad's incarceration that they had evidence he was involved in foreign plots.
The atheist aspect further complicates matters, since it associates Sanad with a Western concept still alien to Egyptians on both sides of the sectarian divide. Apostasy is a source of great shame in Egypt, especially in the small, ill-treated Coptic community.
The prejudices this case reveal have unwholesome ramifications for the development of Egyptian democracy. It shows that sustaining good relations with Israel could prove problematic in a more populist age, and that the parameters of acceptable social discourse will continue to be narrow in the near future, meaning political liberation is unlikely to be followed by social liberation. Furthermore, it allows Egypt's rulers to play on public fears to suit their own ends.
Sanad's removal to a mental hospital may lead to his release, but only in a way that reaffirms the prejudices against his views. His lawyer is arguing that because the army proclaimed him mentally unfit for service in 2009, that view of his mental state still holds. As far as I can gather, Sanad has no known mental disorder. Nonetheless, this may be the easiest way for the army to back down, alleviating the international embarrassment of his imprisonment, while still asserting to Egyptians that he is an irrational and untrustworthy person.
Jorg Luyken is a freelance journalist based in Cairo.
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