Interview With an American Shot and Arrested in Egypt
This year an Egyptian-American named Mohamed Soltan left the United States to join protesters in Egypt who opposed the military coup that ousted Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood-backed and first democratically elected president. On Tuesday...
“Make-Shift field hospital in Rabaa moments ago. It was filled w/injured & dead bodies when torched,” tweeted Mohamed Soltan. Photo by Amr Salama El-qazaz.
This year an Egyptian-American named Mohamed Soltan left the United States to join protesters in Egypt who opposed the military coup that ousted Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood-backed and first democratically elected president. On Tuesday, Egyptian authorities arrested Mohamed Soltan, along with several chief members of the Muslim Brotherhood. He is charged with being in possession of documents that detailed plans to destabilize Egypt by calling for police and soldiers to defect. Although Mohamed is an American citizen, US Embassy officials in Egypt have yet to comment on his arrest.
Mohamed was among those at Rabaa Al-Adawiyah on August 14, when the military massacred hundreds of protesters, and where he told me he was shot by a sniper while coordinating interviews between protesters that oppose military rule and journalists with the foreign media. The bullet remained in his arm for two days, because he couldn’t seek medical attention.
Widespread violence plagued Egypt during the past month, as the military cracked down on public gatherings organized by the Muslim Brotherhood and anti-coup protesters. Over a thousand people died during the dissension that followed with many more injured. Egypt is currently under a state of emergency, which imposes martial law. A military-enforced curfew limits citizens’ activity from 6 AM to 9 PM, except on Fridays when everyone must be inside by 7 PM. It's a tumultuous time for politics as well. Egyptian vice president, Mohamed ElBaradei resigned on August 14 to protest the deadly assaults on protesters. Former President Hosni Mubarak, who was previously given a life sentence for failing to prevent the deaths of about 900 anti-government protesters, was released from prison last Friday. Many view interim-President Adly Mansour as the puppet of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces.
“I always knew blood was freedom's price, I just never imagined it being this horrific. Not in my worst nightmare!!” tweeted Mohamed Soltan, with photo.
The divisions in public opinion aren't so black and white either. On the streets of Cairo you'll find anti-Morsi protesters, pro-Morsi protesters, pro-military protesters, and anti-military protesters who aren't pro-Morsi. Mohamed’s job was to form the “Anti-Coup Alliance,” or gather anyone who opposed the military removal of ex-president Morsi. He says his efforts aren’t necessarily aligning friends of the Muslim Brotherhood, but rather to bring together peaceful protesters who are all “pro-democracy.”
Mohamed is the son of well-known and controversial Islamic scholar Salah Soltan, who is known for his anti-semitism and close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. In the past, Mohamed has said he doesn't like the term “Islamist” and describes himself as a moderate Muslim. When asked about his father’s views, he's described them as "irrelevant." Mohamed earned his degree at Ohio State University while his father taught in America and served as the president of the American Center of Islamic. His father is now wanted by the current Egyptian government. Over a year ago, while Mohamed was still in college, there was a fire inside his apartment. According to local police and the FBI, the cause of the fire was arson. Police had been to Mohamed's residence prior to the fire after it was vandalized with anti-Arab slurs.
I spoke to Mohamed about his experiences in Cairo before he got arrested. Our conversation took place in English via Skype as he was resting at a safe house, at an undisclosed location. The connection dropped several times and before we finished the interview, contact with Mohamed was lost completely.
An x-ray image provided by Mohamed of the bullet in his left humerus (arm bone).
VICE: You’re an American citizen, what led you to join protests in Egypt?
Mohamed: I graduated from Ohio State University last year, in 2012 and then moved to Egypt in early 2013. I got a job at an oil service company as a business development executive. I'm an Egyptian-American, so I wanted to come back and be part of the rebuilding process of Egypt.
Were you at the sit-in at the Rabaa Al-Adawiyah Mosque on August 14? Who else was there, and what did the protesters want?
Yes, I was shot on the Rabaa mosque stage. I'm part of the "Anti-coup Alliance”. I help liaise between foreign media, the Anti-coup Alliance, and the Muslim Brotherhood. When we came to the protest, there were a few of us who weren't Islamists or Muslim Brotherhood members. But we were “anti-coup,” so we pushed the alliance as much as possible to widen the umbrella a little bit so that so that it could include more people in it. Not just Islamists, but anybody that doesn't want to live under the military rule, anybody that's pro-democracy, anti-coup. We were pretty successful at that after the first ten days. People were talking about Morsi's legitimacy, but it became bigger than that. It became bigger than Morsi. It became about being anti-military coup. This is the exact same thing we fought for on Jan 25. I came down from the US to join the Jan 25 revolution to stand with my Egyptian brothers and sisters to denounce the police state that has been ruling the country for over three decades.
When we joined the Rabaa protest, we joined knowing that we may disagree with Dr. Morsi on some things. We might not agree with him on some of his policies or some of the ways he handled the state. He took a route that went against what some of the revolutionaries wanted. The revolutionaries wanted to cleanse—wanted to purify the government and institutions. Although we might disagree with him, we still believe that he's the first democratically elected president of Egypt, that he should finish his presidency's term. That's the only solution. You can never really get a headcount [in the streets] but what you can really count are ballots.
Backup cameraman's helmet. Photo by Mohamed Soltan.
You said you were shot, but stopped there. How exactly did you get shot and who did the shooting?
On Wednesday, we took some of the media team and we went out to Youssef Abbas and El-Nasr street intersection. It was the best vantage point. There's a triple intersection where the police and army had come from three different sides so, from a cameraman's perspective, it was strategically the best place to be. The police started coming in, and I started tweeting out at that time. My phone was nearly out of battery.
The bulldozers came in first with the tear gas. Within the first ten minutes there were five people shot right in front me. I was wearing a gasmask. I made my way back to near the stage because I wanted to make sure that my sister, my younger sister, and my father were OK. I sat in a corner near the front left corner of the stage. There was a power outlet there working off of the generator. I plugged in my phone, and I was taking pictures and live-tweeting what was happening. About a minute later, an Al-Jazeera cameraman was shot in the hospital. The backup gentleman came literally two minutes after him. He put a helmet on. After a minute he was also shot in the head. I took a picture of the helmet and tweeted it. It was very brutal.
About an hour later, they're still shooting and there's tear gas everywhere. I bent over to the right a little bit to pull my phone off a charger. Literally, as soon as I moved down to grab the charger, a bullet goes flying by my left ear. The first bullet was intended for my head. Half a minute later, I get a shot to my arm. The people on stage grabbed me, took a scarf from my head, and wrapped my arm where the wound was. I went to the field hospital, but the cases there were so severe. They stitched me up with the bullet still inside. They gave me painkillers, and wrapped my arm where the wound was, and told me to go get it x-rayed some other time.
Right after they shot me, they just started randomly shooting at the stage. We moved closer to the mosque. After the amount of teargas that we breathed, we just got so used to it. We moved back to the field hospital, because it got heavier and they were firing on us. I didn't even go to a real hospital. I just went to someone who we know here. They removed the bullet and kind of fixed up the bone that had shattered. Right now my arm is in a sling, even after the surgery. If I get stopped at a checkpoint and they know that I got shot in a protest, they'll automatically [decide] to make [me go] to jail.
“My bones bent Elsisi's bullet! I always knew drinking my milk would pay off one day :)” tweeted Mohamed Soltan.
You've referred to many of the people killed this week in Egypt as martyrs. You've tweeted, "Either we live free on this earth or six feet under with the righteous," and that millions will have to die before Egypt will be ruled again by a military force. Do you think more protesters will eventually openly call for violence to combat the military crack down on demonstrations?
My tweet was the Egyptian version of what I learned as an American in civics class: “Give me liberty or give me death.” We're fighting for Egypt's freedom, we're fighting for Egypt's independence—political and economical. We're fighting for our future. You have a country that's population is made up of 80 percent under the age of 35. You're looking at one of the youngest countries in the world that stood up on Jan 25 and said no to the military rule. So if an entire generation has to sacrifice itself for the next generation to be free, then so be it. Does that mean that we're going to abandon our principle of peacefulness? No. Because that has been our strength all along. Our voice has been our biggest strength. Will we take up arms? No. I don't think we'll ever do that.
How do you respond to accusations by the Egyptian government that pro-Morsi demonstrators are terrorists?
You have a government that's—I mean, I don't give a crap about Adly or whatever his name is—the person who really rules the government right now is [General Sisi]. He swore an oath in front of the first democratically elected President. This man has dishonored his oath. This was an oath on the Egyptian constitution. Anything is possible after that. If you watch the Egyptian news channels, it really reminds of me of Fox News post-9/11.
If you're asking me what my response is to these accusations, they're bullshit. It's propaganda. They're taking a page out of the Bush administration's playbook, where you do the act and you put propaganda out there that “we're fighting terrorism.” We're the ones being killed here. We're the one's being injured. We're the one's that are unarmed and being murdered in cold blood while the entire world watches. How are we terrorists?
There have been many Christian churches that have been attacked and burnt. Are there groups that are taking advantage of the situation and committing acts of violence?
The burning of churches to spark a sectarian war between Muslims and Christians is ridiculous. This is literally a page out of Mubarak's playbook. This is all intelligence work. How come we haven't had one church burned in the last two and a half years? The last church that was burnt was in the Mubarak era. Every single time Mubarak wanted a justification to take harsh security measures against Islamic groups or Islamic movements, they'd go burn a church. Then they'd impose martial law. They aren't creative enough to come up with new ideas.
[Editor’s note: There were several churches attacked from January 2011 to April 2013, which is the time Mohamed claims no churches were burned.]
You've reported on children being tear gassed by the Egyptian military, including your younger sister. Do children really belong in the streets?
I think a lot of parents didn't know where to put their kids, so they brought them. I think now that it has been so violent, people are going to think ten times before bringing their kids. The real questions should be why the hell is the military shooting at peaceful protests where there are thousands of women and children. That should be the real question. It's not like we're holding up arms and calling for armed opposition. It's a peaceful protest.
According to a recent Facebook post, translated from Arabic, Mohamed and his friends are now being held at Tora prison, the previous home of Hosni Mubarak, and they have been interrogated there. They are facing charges related to “broadcasting false news” that harms national security and “joining a banned organization.” According to the post, no lawyer was present during the interrogation.
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