The Saturday Profile
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
CAIRO — Mohamed Soltan knew he had one thing going for him when the Egyptian police came to his door: He was a United States citizen, raised primarily in Ohio.
It did not mean much in the moment. The police had come looking for his father, Salah Soltan, an outspoken member of the Muslim Brotherhood. But when they found only Mohamed Soltan and three friends, the police arrested them instead, along with tens of thousands of others thought to be Islamists or liberal dissidents who were rounded up after the military takeover here two years ago.
But his American citizenship helped embolden Mr. Soltan, then 25, to carry out a hunger strike for 14 of his 21 months in prison, shedding more than 160 of the original 272 pounds on his 5-foot-11-inch frame and risking organ failure in the belief that the United States government might come to his aid.
His citizenship brought special torments from jailers seeking to break him, like when he was locked in a room overnight with a dying man screaming in pain and then left alone with the corpse for most of the next day.
And his citizenship is also what finally secured his deportation home to the United States, on May 30, thanks to pressure from the White House, Mr. Soltan and American diplomats say.
Now Mr. Soltan is trying to parlay his ordeal into a new role as an advocate for the tens of thousands of Islamists, leftists and liberals still languishing in Egyptian prisons.
In recent meetings at the White House and the State Department, Mr. Soltan has cited his unique experiences as both a child of the American Midwest and a political prisoner in Cairo to argue that Egypt’s mass incarcerations are hurting Washington’s interests, by radicalizing previously nonviolent youth into anti-American militants.
“I was fortunate enough to have had the experience of freedom and democracy here in the United States, so I was able to translate my anger into the hunger strike,” Mr. Soltan said in a telephone interview from Washington. But tens of thousands of other young inmates “are more likely to go the other way.”
Jihadists from the Egyptian branch of the Islamic State now walk around the prison with an air of vindication, Mr. Soltan said, and they tell other prisoners: “These apostates will never respect anything but violent resistance. They only understand the language of weapons.”
“The one thing that everybody in the prison had in common — the ISIS guys, the Muslim Brotherhood guys, the liberals, the guards, the officers — is that they all hated America,” Mr. Soltan added. “And in a young country like Egypt, our interests are at stake, because a growing anti-American sentiment across the ideological spectrum in Egypt, that is not good for anybody.”
Officials appear to be listening. Shortly after meeting Mr. Soltan, Secretary of State John Kerry publicly repeated some of the same arguments in unscripted remarks during a visit to Cairo. Mr. Kerry told journalists that he had spoken to his Egyptian counterparts extensively about his concerns over “radicalization that can take place through imprisonment, through incarceration” and “a sort of revolving cycle of terrorism.”
With his Midwestern accent and broad, toothy smile, Mr. Soltan is an unusual public face for the victims of Egypt’s crackdown, most of whom, like his father, are Islamist. At times he seems as if he would rather be talking about the Ohio State Buckeyes and fantasy football than politics and prisons.
He said he never personally supported the ousted president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. (“I am too liberal for the Islamists and too religious for the liberals,” he said.) But on democratic principle he joined the main Islamist protest against Mr. Morsi’s ouster on democratic principles, acting as an interpreter for Western journalists there.
He was there on Aug. 14, 2013, when the security forces killed nearly a thousand demonstrators in a mass shooting.
One bullet struck his arm, and doctors had to insert metal rods to support the bone. The police arrested him a few days later, while he was recovering. His father was jailed a month after that.
Mr. Soltan was initiated into prison life through a standard ritual known as “the welcoming”: Stripped to his underwear, he was forced to run between two rows of guards who beat him and the other new inmates for two hours with batons, belts and whips, he said.
A friend changed the dressing on his arm with a soiled cotton ball. Later, other prisoners held him down as an inmate who was a doctor used a straight razor to remove the metal rods from his arm.
At his final destination within the prison system, at the Tora prison complex in Cairo, he was housed in a dungeonlike cell, about five yards per side, with about 25 other political prisoners — a mix of Brotherhood members, militant jihadists, and left-leaning or secular activists. It was there, he said, that he began to think of a hunger strike as an alternative to the jihadists’ urgings to join them.
The jailers “strip away your freedom. They wipe the floor with your pride. They make sure you have no will left,” he said, “but the hunger strike reverses that process.”
His brother consulted the families of Palestinians who had carried out hunger strikes in Israeli jails, and on their advice Mr. Soltan gradually stopped eating meat, then carbohydrates, and then dairy products over a period of about three months. Then he began his strike, on Jan. 26, 2014.
He drank only water, sometimes with added salt, and ate vitamins provided by his family. After the first 15 days, he said, he began to lose consciousness frequently, including for a particularly long spell around March 23. The prison authorities sometimes put him in the hospital ward to give him intravenous injections of glucose and saline to revive him.
The prison authorities placed him in solitary confinement in a hospital room with no windows. After a few days of silence, he said, he broke down and rammed his head against the metal door until he bled enough to need a bandage. The prison authorities began encouraging him to kill himself, Mr. Soltan said. Guards slipped razors under the door or left electrical wires exposed in the room, he said.
“Relieve us and you of this headache,” a senior prison official named Mohamed Ali told him, Mr. Soltan said.
An Interior Ministry spokesman did not respond to a detailed request for comment.
Then the prison authorities tried sleep deprivation. First he was kept awake by screams of pain right outside his door. Then he was put under a 24-hour spotlight. Finally the guards put a blinking strobe light in his room that kept him awake for three days, he said. In retaliation, he refused to allow the prison doctors to take his vital signs. The guards handcuffed him to his wheelchair and beat him into submission, he said.
In January, 11 months after his hunger strike began, Mr. Soltan’s sister, Hanaa, persuaded him that American diplomacy was beginning to work. He shifted to a “wet strike,” consuming milk and yogurt drinks.
One evening a few weeks later, a guard and a nurse carried a prison hospital patient named Rida into Mr. Soltan’s room. Take care of Rida, the guards told Mr. Soltan, and they locked the door behind them, he said.
Rida began screaming in agony, and Mr. Soltan banged on the door for help but no one came. Rida died in front of him, Mr. Soltan said, and the guards did not open the door again until 3 p.m. the next day.
“You did not knock hard enough!” the guards, doctors and senior officers told him. “You let this guy die? How could you do this!”
A prison doctor later told him that Rida had been terminally ill with cancer. “I still have nightmares about that night,” Mr. Soltan said.
The three friends arrested with him are still serving life sentences. His father is on death row.
In retrospect, he said, a hunger strike “is not the most logical thing to do,” Mr. Soltan said. “But in prison — really, in Egypt in general — everything is just the rule of power. They can do anything they want. Things don’t need to make sense to the logical mind.”
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(via NY Times)