Don’t abandon Mohamed Soltan

June 11, 2014

Pranav Jani reports on the dire situation facing Mohamed Soltan, an activist he met at Ohio State University who is currently languishing behind bars in Cairo.

MOHAMED SOLTAN, a graduate of Ohio State University (OSU) and a U.S. citizen, is in imminent danger of losing his life as he takes a stand for justice and democracy against dictatorship and repression.

Soltan, held in an Egyptian prison since August 25, 2013, for protesting the military government of Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, has been on hunger strike since January 26. After more than 130 days of his debilitating hunger strike, which has reduced his weight by 100 pounds and made him unable to stand, Soltan even gave up water as of June 7.

This escalation of the hunger strike, according to a statement by Soltan's family on the Free Soltan Facebook page, is in defiance of Egyptian authorities, who forcibly injected him with glucose to improve his vitals before a recent fact-finding committee report. The jovial, stocky person we remember is a shadow of himself physically--though his courage and bravery have made him larger than life.

As someone who knows Soltan through the OSU and Columbus activist communities, I am appealing to all democracy and social-justice activists to learn about his story and take immediate action to demand his release. Part of this will mean putting pressure on the Obama administration to put the freedom of activists ahead of its military and imperial interests.

Mohamed Soltan
Mohamed Soltan

As Sisi's Egypt sentences hundreds to death in mass trials and sham elections legitimize the military coup, the Obama administration sends Apache helicopters and military aid to Cairo. It is exactly this sort of U.S. support that allowed the terrible decades of the Mubarak dictatorship to continue. This is a mockery of democracy and freedom, and those of us who value these ideals need to put an end to it.

In His Own Words

Though denied visits and communication, Soltan has been able to smuggle out messages to his family and supporters. These incredibly powerful and clear statements--the words of an activist who has experienced brutality firsthand--give a clear picture of what the current Egyptian regime is all about.

For example, the Free Soltan campaign used social media to broadcast Soltan's reflections on his 100th day of imprisonment. Besides making wry jokes about the kinds of toilets he now prefers, Soltan gave a sense of what he and others have endured, "stripped to our boxers and beaten by 100-plus officers while handcuffed."

In a letter to Obama written on Soltan's 26th birthday in November and published by the New York Times, Soltan wrote about the treatment he received for his injured arm:

The bullet that punctured my arm was paid for by our tax dollars. I was forced to undergo this procedure without any anesthesia or sterilization because the Egyptian authorities refused to transfer me to a hospital for proper surgical care...

The doctor who performed this procedure is a cellmate. He used pliers and a straight razor in lieu of a scalpel. I laid on a dirty mat as my other cellmates held me down to ensure I did not jolt from the pain and risk permanent loss of feeling and function in that arm. The pain was so excruciating, it felt like my brain could explode at any given point.

But Soltan feels shock and betrayal for being abandoned by a president he campaigned for: "Your abandonment of me, an American citizen who worked tirelessly towards your election and a staunch supporter and defender of your presidency, has left a sting in me that is almost as intense as the sharp pain emanating from my recently sliced arm."

Soltan detailed the harassment prisoners face in his statement to the court on May 11, 2014, including beatings and torture: "We saw prisoners tortured to death right before our eyes...Going on hunger strike is the only peaceful means through which I can resist injustice and oppression,"

In his video message of May 27, 2014, which received mainstream media attention, including from CNN, Soltan again pointed to the hypocrisy of the U.S. government, which worked to free white Americans held captive by the same regime, but has yet to help him.

"With your continued silence, you sir are saying that there are, in fact, different variations of American, and my type--in this period, in this time--just happens to be the one that matters less, or not at all. I say this because your government moved mountains and sent a chartered plane to evacuate my fellow--blond-haired, blue-eyed--Americans, who were being detained by the same Egyptian military back in 2012."

Why Soltan Became a Target

Soltan went to Egypt in March 2013, having graduated from OSU in 2012. Going to visit his ailing mother, Soltan was quickly pulled into the ongoing protests and movements for democracy. In order to understand why Soltan has been targeted, we need to examine the revolutionary--and counterrevolutionary--currents coursing through Egyptian society since the ouster of Mubarak by a massive popular movement in February 2011.

Soltan's father, Salah Soltan, is an Islamic scholar and prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and part of the administration of Mohamed Morsi, the Brotherhood leader who became president after winning in the June 2012 election. Morsi, though, continued many of Mubarak's policies and authoritarian rule, and was faced with protests--culminating in mass actions by millions in late June 2013 that were reminiscent of the 2011 movement.

Events took a sharp turn to the right, however. Under the cover of mass unrest, the military moved in, overthrowing Morsi on July 3 and establishing Gen. Sisi's oppressive rule. In response, the Muslim Brotherhood and other democracy activists began to mobilize, conducting mass sit-ins in front of the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in Cairo.

Mohamed Soltan became active at Rabaa Square. Using his knowledge of English and leadership skills, Soltan became a spokesperson for the movement--and therefore a threat to the regime.

In mid-August, Sisi's thugs cracked down. The repression at Rabaa was brutal. Hundreds of activists were killed as the military attacked Rabaa Square. Soltan was himself shot in the arm by a sniper on August 14 and was picked up by the police, along with three others, while recovering from the injury.

It might seem easy to lump together Mohamed's stance and that of the Muslim Brotherhood, especially because he is a devout Muslim and because of his father's affiliations. As we can tell from his letters and statements, however, Mohamed's motivation was less about the Muslim Brotherhood than basic ideas about democracy and civil rights.

More specifically, as Soltan's sister told the Washington Post, Soltan was critical of Morsi's policies and felt they were responsible for opening the door to Sisi.

We must fight for Soltan's freedom not only because we know him, or because he is a U.S. citizen. Hundreds of other victims of this regime, whether Muslim Brotherhood supporters or revolutionary socialists like Mahienour el-Massry, have been locked up and worse in violation of their democratic rights. Soltan is one among many others whose names we may never even know.

Soltan is being used as a piece in a larger political game--as a way for the Egyptian government to send a message to its citizens and to the world that it can go after anyone, U.S. citizen or not.

We need to demand not only that Soltan be freed, but that all of the prisoners captured after the massacre of protesters at Rabaa Square in August 2013 be freed from the clutches of the Sisi government.

Soltan at Ohio State

Soltan and I interacted a few times at Ohio State around issues of common interest, including solidarity actions for Palestine and fighting Islamophobia and racism.

Two incidents stand out for me in particular. The first is the time we were co-speakers at a rally at the Ohio statehouse against the Israeli assault on Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009. Soltan impressed me with his passion and dedication, always affiliating himself with his Muslim faith, but never closing the door to those of other backgrounds. We formed an effective team in raising chants and uplifting the spirits of the crowd.

But my second memory of Soltan might be even more powerful. On February 1, 2012, about 60 or 70 activists and interfaith community members gathered at Soltan's house for a peace vigil. A fire had broken out in the early morning hours of Martin Luther King Day, and the FBI investigated after local police ruled it arson. The attack was not the first time--the house had been previously vandalized by anti-Arab and anti-Muslim graffiti, and Soltan's car tires had been slashed.

At that vigil, I saw Soltan's firm defiance and awareness of what U.S. racism looked like. As he told a reporter when asked if he and his family would move:

I'm not scared. I'm not intimidated. I'm not leaving. I'd just be giving in to what they want. I'm not willing to do that, because what's going to happen to the next guy? There are a lot of Muslim families in that neighborhood. Are they going to go one by one?

But in the vigil, we also saw the deep respect that community members had for Soltan and his family. In turn, Soltan tried to take a long, historical view:

For someone to do such an act, they have to have a lot of hate in them. I'm pretty sure that they would have been the same people that back in the '60s would have been racist against African Americans. I'm really sad that there's still people like that in the world, in my own hometown--that there are still people out there who need to hate somebody in their life.

Mohamed Soltan has always been a leader and a fighter for justice. Along the way, he has confronted racism, attacks and repression. Please help support this voice for democracy and let's get Mohamed released!

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