CAIRO — Pictures of Mohamed Soltan as an Ohio college student show a brawny athlete with a toothy grin and large-framed glasses. Now, the 26-year-old graduate, a dual U.S.-Egyptian citizen, is withering away on a hunger strike in a Cairo area prison.
Soltan, the only U.S. citizen currently imprisoned in Egypt, is facing trial for a raft of terror- and conspiracy-related charges in connection with his participation in demonstrations against the military’s ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi last summer. In January, he started fasting to protest his now eight-month-long detention, and a private doctor who visited him April 19 said the once-stocky basketball player has lost at least 98 pounds and can no longer stand on his own.
Soltan’s family has accused the U.S. government of not doing enough to push Egyptian authorities to resolve or drop his case, which they say is politically motivated. Critics of U.S. policy toward Egypt say such inaction is part of a larger failure by the Obama administration to hold Egypt accountable for increasingly repressive policies, including a vicious crackdown in which hundreds have been killed and thousands arrested.
On April 23, U.S. officials announced that they would be delivering 10 Apache helicopters in a partial resumption of military aid, despite the ongoing mass trials of political opponents that have seen hundreds sentenced to death. Egypt’s government has denounced any condemnation of its actions as meddling in its domestic affairs.
The U.S. Embassy in Cairo declined to comment on what steps, if any, the United States is taking to pressure the Egyptian government to free Soltan. But an embassy official said embassy representatives have visited Soltan several times at the Tora prison outside Cairo and have been present at Soltan’s hearings.
“He doesn’t understand how there can be such an insane level of injustice,” Soltan’s sister, Hanaa Soltan, a 28-year-old clinical social worker in the District, said of her brother.
Through smuggled handwritten letters and visits with relatives, Soltan has been able to sporadically update family members on the conditions of his incarceration.
“No visits, no food, no one knows where we are,” Soltan wrote of the first two weeks after he was arrested and being ferried through Egypt’s prison system. “Stripped to our boxers and beaten by 100+ officers while handcuffed,” he wrote in a report to mark 100 days since his arrest, which was posted on the Free Soltan Facebook page. “Food gets thrown at our door.”
The Soltan family moved from Egypt to the United States in the mid-1990s, when Mohamed was a young boy. The family lived mostly in the Midwest — in Michigan, Missouri and Ohio — where Soltan’s father, Salah Soltan, taught at various Islamic institutes. Salah Soltan has long been a prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the group that backed Morsi’s presidency, and he later served in the Morsi administration.
After graduating from Ohio State University with a degree in economics in 2012, Mohamed Soltan returned to Egypt, where his mother was receiving treatment for cancer. He got a job at an Egyptian petroleum services company.
Today, Soltan is charged — along with his father and about 50 other people, including Muslim Brotherhood supreme guide Mohammed Badie — with helping to run an “operations room” to organize demonstrations and attacks after security forces dispersed the massive pro-Morsi sit-in at Cairo’s Raba’a al-Adaweya Square in August.
“You raised me as a proud American and an Egyptian,” Soltan wrote in a letter to his mother during his first month of detention. In a later dispatch, he admitted he was struggling to accept that as a U.S. citizen, he had been left to languish in an Egyptian prison.
“The American government has abandoned me,” he wrote in a letter to his family from the prison hospital last month.
Police detained Soltan, who had acted as an unofficial spokesman for the Raba’a protesters, two weeks after the Aug. 14 raid, while he was recovering from a gunshot wound suffered during the dispersal. In some of his first dispatches from prison, released by Soltan’s family, he sounded almost upbeat.
“Spiritually at an all-time high, improved relationship with God,” Soltan wrote in the 100-day update. “I don’t think I’ll know how to use a normal bathroom again,” he said jokingly. “Hole in the ground is where it’s at.”
But then something changed.
At Soltan’s first appearance in front of a judge Jan. 26, Egypt’s public prosecutor did not present evidence incriminating him in the “operations room” plot — but the judge renewed his detention anyway. That is when Soltan, who is not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood group that backed Morsi’s presidency, decided to go on a hunger strike until he was released.
“Before all of this happened, I always assumed — because I believe in our system — that as long as I don’t do anything wrong [in Egypt], that I’m protected. I have rights,” Hanaa, also a U.S. citizen, said in a telephone interview from Washington. “But playing Egyptian politics — the rules don’t apply,” she said. “So he firmly believes that this [the hunger strike] is the only tool he has” to pressure authorities.
Soltan’s trial started last month, but the first two sessions covered only procedural matters, his defense lawyers said.
A U.S. Embassy spokesman, Mofid Deak, said a consular officer saw Soltan “around April 1” and that “he was in good health,” but did not elaborate further.
“We believe there should be more pressure applied,” Hanaa Soltan said of the U.S. government’s efforts to resolve Soltan’s case. “They just say that the political situation is very tricky.”
According to his siblings, Soltan saw the military’s move to depose Morsi last summer as an ominous sign of the return to repressive army rule after the uprising in 2011 brought the hope of democracy. But even as his father took a position in the Morsi administration in 2012, Soltan was often a fierce critic of the Islamist president and the way in which the Muslim Brotherhood governed during their brief year in power, they said.
“Even at Raba’a, my brother would say [to Brotherhood leaders]: ‘This is your fault; you put us in this situation’ ” because of botched policies, Omar Soltan, 20, said in a telephone interview from Washington. “He would say: ‘When Morsi comes back, the situation will be different. You won’t be able to make the same decisions you made.’ ”
But the nuance of that position means little now.
Soltan’s politics “have been masked by my dad’s involvement in the organization,” Hanaa Soltan said of their father’s prominent position in the Brotherhood. “And now we’re worried we’re going to get a call saying that [Mohamed’s] dead.”
Sharaf Al-Hourani contributed to this report.