Egyptian Military Crackdown Leads to Arrest of American Citizen

In its efforts to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s military-backed government has begun arresting foreigners — including at least one American — accused of supporting the opposition

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MOSAAB EL-SHAMY / AFP / Getty Images

Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt's ousted President Mohamed Morsi throw stones during clashes with security forces in Cairo on Aug. 14, 2013

The bullet stayed lodged in Mohamed Soltan’s arm for two days.

Soltan, 25, an Egyptian-American dual citizen with a bachelor’s degree in economics from the Ohio State University, was one of the media spokesmen for the huge camp in Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, where protesters called for the reinstatement of deposed President Mohamed Morsi. On Aug. 14, hours after security forces launched an operation to disperse the camp using bulldozers and live bullets, he was shot in the arm while speaking to a television news producer.

When contacted for an interview on Friday, Soltan said he could speak on the phone, but not meet in person. “Moving around is a little difficult,” he said in a text message. During the interview, he said he feared arrest. At least one other demonstrator he knew had been taken into custody after being treated in a hospital near Rabaa, he said, so he had a private doctor remove the bullet. His bandaged arm hung in a sling, which he removed whenever he encountered one of the police or army roadblocks scattered across Cairo under the military-backed government’s monthlong state of emergency.

(MORE: Egypt’s Military Defends Public Image Abroad After Fighting Protests at Home)

Now, according to Soltan’s family, his efforts to avoid arrest were in vain. At 2:19 E.T. on Sunday, his sister Hanaa Soltan, who lives in the Washington area, received a text message stating, “We’ve been arrested. Post.” She has been unable to reach her brother since.

“Our neighbors later told us that my parents’ house had been broken into and destroyed,” Hanaa said in an e-mail. “We aren’t sure if he was arrested at a different location and brought back to the house or if he and his friends had been arrested there.” Aside from Soltan, no other U.S. citizens are known to be in custody as a result of the crackdown.

A statement released by the Ministry of the Interior on its official Facebook page said an American citizen named Mohamed Soltan had been arrested, along with three others, including the director of the Islamist-leaning media network Rassd, a television presenter and a doctor. The statement said Soltan was found in possession of documents describing a plot to “spread chaos and violence in the country” by encouraging members of the army and police to defect.

(MORE: A Deadly Gamble: Egypt’s Salafists May Now Regret Support for the Military)

Since the suppression of the sit-ins, the security forces have launched a sweeping crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, other Islamist groups and opposition activists. Within two days, more than 1,000 people were arrested in the sweep, according to Reuters, including the Muslim Brotherhood’s top leaders. Morsi himself remains in custody at an undisclosed location. At night, in Cairo, a city that usually overflows with nocturnal activity, the streets are all but empty, the result of a state-declared curfew.

Soltan grew up in a conservative household. His father, Islamist scholar and leading Muslim Brotherhood figure Salah Soltan, taught for years in Michigan and Kansas. But Mohamed, who wears chunky glasses, T-shirts and sometimes a baseball cap, hesitates to call himself an Islamist. “I don’t like the label,” he said. “I consider myself a moderate Muslim. I’m a devout Muslim.” He is not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood or any Egyptian political party. As a student, he participated in pro-Palestinian activism, and attempted to travel to the Gaza Strip. He flew back to Egypt, the country of his birth, to join the winter 2011 uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak.

After finishing his degree at Ohio State, Soltan returned to Egypt again five months ago to begin a career as a business-development manager in an oil-services company. His father had been appointed under Morsi to serve as secretary general of the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs in the Ministry of Awqaf (religious endowments).

Soltan quit his job on June 30, the day of the huge protests that, three days later, triggered the military’s removal and arrest of Morsi, and joined the movement to reinstate the President. Because he spoke fluent English, he volunteered to help handle foreign media in the Rabaa camp.

(PHOTOS: Clashes Erupt in Egypt as Protesters March Against Earlier Bloodshed)

Twelve days before he went missing, Soltan was in the center of the chaos in Rabaa al-Adawiya Square. Tear gas seeped through the seal on his gas mask. Bullets buzzed past. Volunteers laid out bodies at the field hospital across the square. He continued to field calls from international media outlets, and hours into the assault he went to the front corner of the camp’s stage, previously used for speeches during political rallies, to charge his dying phone on power supplied by a backup generator. Demonstrators had erected a wooden wall as a makeshift shield against bullets. “We were getting hit from all different directions,” Soltan said.

At some point between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. he received a call from al-Jazeera English asking to speak to Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Beltagy, who was on stage with him. As he leaned over to remove the phone from the charger, a bullet whizzed past his head, hitting the wooden wall behind him. A second round, fired from behind, hit him in his left upper arm.

“I felt like the Hulk punched me in my arm,” he recalled. He dropped the phone. Another demonstrator snatched a scarf from Soltan’s shoulders and wound it around his arm to stanch the bleeding. Overwhelmed by the number of casualties, the medics at the field hospital stitched up his arm with the bullet still lodged inside.

According to a Human Rights Watch investigation, the security forces’ use of live fire on Aug. 14 led to the worst incidence of violence in Egypt’s modern history. At least 377 people were killed in Rabaa al-Adawiya Square alone, the group reports. Hundreds were killed nationwide in four days of subsequent violence.

The government blames the opposition. Brigadier Hatem Fathy, the director of the International Relations Department of the Ministry of Interior, denied protesters’ claims that police snipers fired into the square from adjacent buildings, as demonstrators, including Soltan, claimed.

The military-installed government and its supporters, riding a wave of nationalist fervor, have insinuated that foreign nationals are participating in the Brotherhood’s demonstrations. Two Canadians, filmmaker John Greyson and doctor Tarek Loubani, have been in custody since Aug. 16 after they traveled to Egypt en route to the Gaza Strip. The two are reportedly held on charges of joining members of the Muslim Brotherhood in an alleged attack on a police station.

Even though he feared arrest, Soltan said on Friday that he planned to participate in protest marches against the military-led government. He predicted a long-term battle to end military rule. “We’re going to go out in the streets,” he said, “if it takes us a month, two months, three months, a year, 10 years.”

“The Egyptian side of my identity deserves as much freedom and democracy and liberty as my American side does,” he said. “It’s what I learned in sixth-grade civics class: Give me liberty or give me death.”