In the months following the July 2013 coup in Egypt Mohamed Soltan, who was working with the media team at the Rabaa pro-democracy demonstrations, visited a prosecutor’s office for legal advice. “Don’t waste your breath,” the prosecutor told him, “the country’s ours we can do whatever we want. We are the law.”
This is a rare moment when an official admits what Egypt’s justice system has become: a black hole in which authorities do whatever they like with detainees from the moment of their arrest, through to the time of their trial and while they are detained. Around 41,000 people have entered Egypt’s dungeons since 2011; 73 per cent of these are political prisoners, many minors. Some 500 have received death sentences, seven of which have been carried out, and torture and rape are rampant. “Mubarak on steroids,” as Soltan describes it.
Egyptian authorities have made a lot of effort to make sure information like this doesn’t leave prison walls. Journalists can be fined $200,000 for broadcasting a different narrative from the state and many who have attempted to expose human rights concerns have been shot at, imprisoned, or sentenced in absentia. Documenting these issues, therefore, has been left to human rights groups, social media and first-hand accounts from the people who have suffered them – like Egyptian-American Mohamed Soltan, former detainee and hunger striker turned political activist.
Four months ago, Soltan was almost 90 per cent sure he was going to die in prison and now here he is in London to tell his story. “I didn’t even have the choice to open my own door, now the sky’s the limit. That process in itself is overwhelming; I’m just trying to take it one step at a time. Smiling through it,” he tells me. The smiling part can be taken quite literally, for the Egyptian authorities may have taken away two years of his life but they haven’t managed to break Soltan’s spirit. There is an underlying feeling of positivity in everything he says: “Hope is the flame that keeps us alive.”
Soltan’s story began on 27 August 2013 when Egyptian police entered his family home looking for his father, Salah Soltan, a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood. When they couldn’t find his father they arrested him instead for colluding with terrorists though no evidence was presented to support that claim. Extended sentences, failure to be given a fair trial and squalid conditions made him feel a hunger strike was the only form of protest left. “To me that was when all other means were exhausted and I had to. That was my last resort,” he tells me. From this point he and Al-Jazeera journalist Abdullah Al-Shami became the first Egyptian detainees, ever, to go on a hunger strike.
The strike not only confused prison guards – “everything [in Egypt] revolves around breakfast, lunch and dinner” – but when he pressed other detainees to join him, the will was not there. “For me from the get go I saw it as me resisting oppression and this was my contribution to a non-violent resistance as a whole, for the country. Others saw it as disparity and losing faith and losing hope and just quitting.”
After a while, he says, the hunger subsides but you are left with the fatigue, weakness, loss of memory and difficulty communicating. “I never thought I’d say this in my life but being fat really came in handy,” he says describing how his body ate up all the mass and when there was nothing left he started to fall in and out of hypoglycemic comas, made worse by an existing medical condition for which he was taking blood thinners.
In spite of his weak state, Soltan was beaten on his broken arm for two hours and handcuffed to his wheelchair and beaten up again. An operation was performed on his arm with no anaesthesia; guns were waved in his face and the doctors who were brought to him offered him razors and taught him how to cut himself or showed him open wires and told him to hold on with two hands. On one occasion prison guards threw a dying man into his room, and then left the corpse there for 15 hours.
“Physical pain goes away after a day or two, a week, two weeks, a month… the psychological torture, that stuff sticks through, that stays with you,” he says lowering his voice so much it is barely audible. During the last six months of his detainment, Soltan’s father, who by then had been arrested, was moved into his son’s cell to try and convince him to break the strike. “My dad saved my life when I was slipping into hypoglycemic comas. He would get a hard candy and rub it and put it under my lip so at least I would have some sugar in my system so I was resuscitated,” he recalls.
Whilst Soltan persevered inside, outside his hunger strike was attracting global attention. Members of the divided opposition and beyond tweeted, prayed and circulated photos online. “Obviously there was this amazing woman right here,” he says gesturing towards his sister, Hanaa, who spearheaded the #FreeSoltan campaign and became his official spokesperson throughout. “There was a good, core group of people that had dedicated themselves to the campaign and that was important. Two or three people I didn’t even know, I met when I came out.”
Knowing people on the outside were working for his release kept him going. “It just balances out in one’s head that balance between good and evil. That the world is not completely evil, there’s good out there and that gives you that light at the end of the tunnel that hopefully good will prevail one day, and it did, fortunately for me.”
The case gathered so much attention the interior minister visited him in prison to tell him it was the first time since Khalid Said that a case had attracted so much attention. In June 2010 Said was beaten to death by police officers outside an internet café in Alexandria, sparking a worldwide social media campaign against police brutality led by the Facebook group, “We are all Khaled Said”. Many believe it inspired the 25 January 2011 revolution.
Eventually the pressure gathering outside secured Soltan’s release at the end of May 2015, helped no doubt by his dual citizenship. Ironically he had to give up his Egyptian passport as a condition of his release. Though he is not with them anymore, Soltan is still concerned about the 41,000 people still imprisoned on unjust charges. Young people have no room to breathe, he says, no space for dialogue and dissent, coupled with a growing disbelief in democracy and freedom which leaves them with few options. “The radicalisation process is a real thing; it’s happening… the way things are happening in Egypt is going to lead, not just the country, but the region in to a very dark tunnel.”
“Our governments are refusing to give any real consequences to a regime that is escalating in its repression,” he says of President Al-Sisi’s upcoming visit to the UK. “They’re also not rewarding the opposition at all for maintaining this non-violence. What are you pushing these youth to? Especially since it’s such a young country; the youth are the future.”
Inside prison there are still between four and five dual citizen detainees nobody knows about as well as countless other journalists, academics, minors, ex-officials and girls. “There are so many different categories of people that every single one is not just a number, every one of them has a story, and every one of them has a family behind them. Some of them have two or three members of their family in prison. It’s the story of an entire society that has suffered and continues to suffer while the world is silent.”
“In the beginning we were saying why are you arresting people? Now we’re saying just arrest them, don’t assassinate them. How much worse is it going to get?” he asks.
Along with other former detainees Soltan is advocating, campaigning and pressurising government officials and decision makers to help bring about human rights in Egypt. Is that his full time job now? “It doesn’t pay like one,” replies his sister. “It doesn’t pay at all,” laughs Soltan. “It’s an unpaid, full time job. It’s my responsibility to tell the story of those inside so that’s what I’m doing, I’m doing that there, I’m doing that here and I’m going to continue doing that… we have to, for those inside. Some of my friends are on death row. Some of my journalist friends have a life sentence. So there’s a sense of responsibility there.”