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Egyptian Blogger Sentenced by Military Rulers Amid Accusations of Human Rights "Cronyism"

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Blogger Maikel Nabil was sentenced to two years in prison yesterday, a one-year reduction from his three-year sentence handed down on Apr. 11 by a military tribunal in closed session. Nabil was tried by a military tribunal, despite being a civilian, joining the 12,000 people who have been convicted in such trials since the fall of Mubarak.

He was convicted of insulting the army and publishing false news, which is of course ridiculous given the military are currently the political rulers of the transitional country and thus must be susceptible to criticism! Nabil founded the Facebook group No for Compulsory Military Service and has been arrested several times, yet continued to publish by sending hand-written notes from prison to his lawyers to post on his blog. He has also been on a hunger strike for more than 114 days, and his brother, said Nabil, will fast until "dead or released."

Of course, Egyptian cyberactivists and citizen journalists are in an uproar, refusing to give up their right to free speech, which they so valiantly fought for, despite the SCAF's threats to take away these rights. Human rights organizations defending Nabil and advocating for his release alleged that his lawyers were tricked, and others cautioned about the dangerous precedent being set. The U.S. also called for his release yesterday, although for some reason the U.S. continues to provide unconditional aid to the military SCAF leaders even though they are consistently violating the fundamental rights of their citizens -- and this in a year of budget cuts and economic hardships in America!

Mikhail Nabil Sanad, picture courtesy of MidEast Youth

Nabil's mainstream Egyptian media initially ignored his plight, but as this post written by blogger and friend Tarek Amr details, cyberactivists and citizen journalists pressed for the media coverage it deserved. As Rasha Abdullah, an AUC professor and author of a book on the Internet in the Arab world, tweeted: @rashaabdulla: "#MaikelNabil's case is clear message to #Internetactivists. We have to defend #freedom of expression. This is not acceptable. #Egypt #Jan25". 

Yet Egypt's cyberactivst community has also come under criticism for failing to galvanize opposition around his case as they have around the arrest and imprisonment of one of the grandfathers of Egyptian cyberactivism, Alaa Abdel Fattah, leading to accusations of "human rights cronyism." According to journalist Joseph Mayton, fewer than 20 people turned out for Nabil's court sessions yet organizers of the #NoMilTrials campaign for Alaa organized a massive march in late October throughout downtown Cairo to put pressure on the military to release him. (Alaa has refused to speak at his trial before a military court that he and many others see as illegitimate and thus unable to compel him to take part, but continues to blog from prison.) Mayton says "[t]he reason could boil down to simple cronyism, but I suspect it is even more intricate than this. Nabil has controversial, and unpopular, ideas on normalization with Israel. As a Coptic Christian, this has been scorned by activists in the country, who have an ardent anti-Israeli sentiment -- and justifiably so."

Alaa Abdel Fattah, courtesy of himself

I disagree with Mayton's argument, however, that human rights groups should not concentrate on highlighting specific cases rather than broader human rights abuses -- this is a technique for making people care about those who are usually very far removed from them and their daily lives. The same technique is used by journalists, who find that person or anecdote that illustrates a broader trend or issue. He also blames this "cronyism" in part on access, which may be somewhat true but doesn't explain the true dynamics, which are far more complex in that they are related to the nature of networks and cyberactivism as it developed in Egypt. The power laws of networks mean that highly connected activists like Alaa, who was one of Egypt's first bloggers, is one of the most highly connected nodes in the Egyptian cybersphere and highly connected to international journalists, rights groups and transnational activist networks. He has more than 71,000 followers on Twitter and has posted more than 112,000 tweets, one of the most connected people in Egypt's cybersphere.
Mayton continues:

"Fattah is friends with the human rights institutions and journalists who report what goes on in Egypt. So, of course he has the upper hand in what is reported and what is advocated. Also, the rights workers understand that he is an international symbol that will galvanise foreign press to intervene and write an article on the situation. It's all PR."

If not for the last snarky comment I would agree; but why does that deserve condemnation? NGOs, journalists and activists have limited resources in terms of time and money, and the public has a limited attention span and are drowning in information. I have similarly written before about the unequal coverage given to highly connected cyberactivists in the post, "Meditations on journalism, cyberactivism and my research", and my PhD dissertation. Alaa spent years building up a transitional cyberactivist network that includes many of Egypt's most prominent activists, but they have not been silent on Nabil and neither have international groups. Which means that as we advocate for the U.S. to put its money where its mouth is with respect to the SCAF, and for the military to respect freedom of expression and opinion, it will benefit each and every person not just those who become poster kids.