Mohamed Soltan’s left arm is riven with scars. The middle of his upper arm bears a bullet wound where he was shot by Egyptian security forces when they violently dispersed a sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya square in Cairo on 14 August 2013. Just above the elbow and just below the shoulder are two further scars. These are where the metal rods placed in his arm to repair the damage of the bullet wounds pushed through the skin after being displaced by a police beating. The rod sat on a nerve for three months during his subsequent incarceration before painfully piercing through the skin. He was denied medical treatment.
Soltan, who grew up in the American Midwest and graduated from Ohio State University, had returned to live in Egypt in 2012, after his mother was diagnosed with cancer. In 2011, still a student, he spent a month in Egypt at the Tahrir Square protests that unseated long time dictator Hosni Mubarak. “I’m an Egyptian American, and I’ve always dreamt that the Egyptian part of my identity could enjoy the same freedoms that my American identity did,” Soltan told me when we met in London recently. “That nearly happened on 25 January [2011, the day Mubarak stood down].”
It was not to be. The last few years in Egypt have been tumultuous, revolutions met by counter-revolutions. In July 2013, the democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi – whose Muslim Brotherhood government had angered many and triggered mass protests – was ousted in a military coup. Counter-protests, centred around Rabaa, broke out. Soltan joined them, and was there on 14 August when security forces killed at least 817 people and injured many more.
Soltan’s father, Salah, held a senior position in the Muslim Brotherhood, but Soltan was not a member. “I wasn’t at Rabaa in support of Morsi, I was there in support of the democratic process,” he says. Soltan doesn’t affiliate himself with any particular movement, describing his politics as “too liberal for the conservatives and too conservative for the liberals”.
Eleven days after the protest, the police came to Soltan’s house, looking for his father. He was not there; instead, they arrested Soltan and three of his friends. This began a 21-month nightmare that only ended on 30 May 2015, after months of pressure from the US authorities and 16 months of hunger strike by Soltan.
It began in “the fridge”, which Soltan describes as “a place where they cook up a case and an arrest warrant”. Soltan and his friends were stripped to their underwear and badly beaten. Over the next few months, they were moved between different prisons. Their fate was uncertain as the authorities extended their imprisonment for 15 days at a time.
This was part of a wider crackdown on dissent by the new military-backed regime, led by former army chief Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. In July 2014, an interior ministry official acknowledged that the authorities had arrested 22,000 people in the previous year. Independent monitoring groups suggest the figure is closer to 41,000. Muslim Brotherhood members or alleged supporters of Morsi make up the greatest number (the Brotherhood claims 29,000 of their members are in custody) but secularist and leftist activists have been targeted too.
Like many cases against political prisoners, Soltan’s was a mass trial. The group – which included his father – stood accused of spreading false information internationally and belonging to a terrorist organisation, charges which mirror those in the highly publicised trial against a group of Al Jazeera journalists. Soltan believes his case gained less traction because it included a number of Muslim Brotherhood leaders, playing to the West’s squeamishness about supporting an Islamist group. “That made it a Muslim Brotherhood case, not a journalism case, even though there were 12 journalists on our case,” he said.
After 150 days in prison – the legal cut-off point for detention without charge – Soltan heard the charges against him. During the 150 days, he had channeled his anger into thinking of means of resistance, and now he put it into action by going on hunger strike. It was a move he had been preparing for, gradually cutting out different food groups.
Over the course of the next 16 months, Soltan lost more than half his body weight, regularly slipping in and out of hypoglycaemic comas. As he gained national and international attention, he was subjected to increasingly extreme physical and psychological torture. His father, held in the same prison, was tortured by proxy. Soltan was kept in solitary confinement. In one particularly brutal incident, guards threw a terminally ill man into a tiny cell with Soltan and ordered him to take care of him. The man died two hours later, but the corpse was left there for 14 hours. “They guilt tripped me about how I let this guy die. It weighed so heavily on me.”
Finally, in May this year, physically frail and psychologically pressured, Soltan was deported to the US. He had given up his Egyptian citizenship, making him eligible for a presidential decree that allows for the deportation of foreign prisoners. Before leaving prison, Soltan was not allowed to say goodbye to his father, who is on death row.
Since then, Soltan has dedicated himself to speaking out, meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry and ambassador to the UN Samantha Power to argue that western security interests are at stake. “The Egyptian regime is not facing any real substantial consequences for escalating repression. The non-violent opposition is not rewarded for maintaining its non-violence. The longer we’re turning a blind eye and being silent about this, the more likely folks inside prison will adopt more extremist ideas.”
For a time during his incarceration, Soltan shared a cell with Isis and Al-Qaeda militants. “They walked around with a victorious air: ‘look, you idiots, your model doesn’t work’. There’s a growing disbelief in freedom and democracy amongst moderate Islamists. Literally daily, things are happening that is proving the very simple arguments the Isis guys were making. You are facing so much oppression and there’s no outlet for it, no dialogue, no space for political dissent. People feel continuingly abandoned by the international community, which is legitimising this coup and giving it everything it needs to thrive.”
Despite the heavy personal cost he has borne, he has no intention of giving up. “We believers in democracy, in freedom, in the principles of the revolution – we are all very young and time is on our side. We’re going to continue the struggle non-violently and do everything in our power until the Egyptian people enjoy their God-given freedoms.”