Mohamed Soltan’s price of freedom

Mohamed Soltan accepted exile and loss of citizenship as the price of being released, but the choice was hardly ‘free’.

Mohammed Soltan during a court appearance in Cairo, Egypt [AP]
Mohamed Soltan during a court appearance in Cairo, Egypt [AP]

The release and deportation of Egyptian-American activist and journalist Mohamed Soltan from prison after a hunger strike that lasted for over a year, raises at least two very interesting issues related to the present political situation in Egypt: the importance of prisoners’ having dual nationality with a Western country such as the United States, Canada, or Australia, and the importance of the hunger strike – and even the death strike – as a weapon for those without any other power to oppose the full weight of state oppression in Egypt today.

Soltan began his hunger strike in January 2014, after the judge in his case renewed his detention even though the prosecutor failed to present any evidence in support of the charges against him. Soltan was sentenced to life imprisonment in April.

Soltan is not the first well-known Egyptian political prisoner to win release as part of a deal which involved renouncing Egyptian citizenship and leaving the country.

Activist Mohamed Soltan en route to US after Egypt release

Al Jazeera journalist Mohamed Fahmy, a dual Egyptian-Canadian citizen, also renounced his Egyptian nationality before his release from prison on bail. His colleague, Peter Greste, was released even earlier because he was an Australian citizen.

Stripping citizenship

The practice of stripping nationals of their citizenship has a long history in statecraft, although its meaning has changed greatly over time. In Rome, it was, if not a legal right, then a custom of which an accused Roman could avail himself as an alternative to trial and punishment, particularly for political crimes.

The division of the Arab world into competing camps during the Cold War made it fairly common for activists, intellectuals and artists to spend long periods in exile from their home countries.

While Fahmy or Soltan might have accepted exile and loss of citizenship as the price of being released, the choice was hardly “free”. The fact that each had citizenship in a country that is a major ally (and in the US case, a major sponsor) of Egypt made it that much easier for the Egyptian government to arrange a scenario where the two men would be freed in return for exile. They were, in effect, used as pawns to get Egypt’s ally to fulfil some request or desire that would otherwise have been harder to realise.

And yet, they were also quite lucky. The Egyptian government was able to quite literally get rid of them without having to dispose of the bodies. The vast majority of the thousands of other jailed Egyptian activists have no such possibility.

It often seems that the large share of January 25 activists, who were at the heart of the Tahrir uprising, are either in prison with long-term sentences, in exile, or dead.


Many would leave

It often seems that the large share of January 25 activists, who were at the heart of the Tahrir uprising, are either in prison with long-term sentences, in exile, or dead. While a recent article claims that Egyptians have in fact largely resisted fleeing their country, conversations I have had with many activists suggest that many, if by no means, all would leave if they were able to secure asylum or long-term opportunities.

Indeed, Facebook pages began appearing almost immediately after the announcement of Soltan’s freedom and expulsion condemning him as a traitor and “dog” for giving up his Egyptian nationality, but commenters largely scoffed at the criticism and with the usual dose of Egyptian gallows humour declared that they’d be happy “to go to Somalia” even if all they got was a “visa” rather than a Somali passport.

A Gulf activist now living in Scandinavia explained: “The general consensus is that people don’t fear death, they fear moving in darkness. That is, they won’t move until they know where they’re heading … and this is what we’re missing.”

In a context where most public protests are met with harsh repression, there aren’t that many options open for activists at the moment.

For many activists, the “return to the internet” is the best solution, where they can wait for conditions to again approach those of late 2010, when mass street protests again became possible. For others, being outside their home country gives them greater freedom and effectivity to act in an age where the internet and social media have effectively collapsed the territory between exile and home.

Few options left

For those stuck not just in Egypt but in prison, one of the few options left to them is the hunger strike, but this is incredibly costly to the prisoner and their families. Soltan spent over a year on a full or partial hunger strike before his release, to which the publicity it generated no doubt contributed.

Egyptian activist and blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah [AFP]
Egyptian activist and blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah [AFP]

Alaa Abdel Fattah, joined by his sister Sanaa, spent over 100 days on a strike without success. When the major international actors care mostly about the war on terror, regimes like Egypt feel confident they can weather any local and international outcry.

Only even more drastic measures, such as death fasts that “forge lives [directly] into weapons”, have a chance to move regimes that care little if their imprisoned citizens live or die.

Muhammad Bouazizi understood this all too well, and the results of that realisation launched the Arab Spring. Today, it might seem like radical groups have again appropriated the weaponisation of bodies for far more nefarious ends than those of the revolutionaries of the Arab Spring.

But as conditions deteriorate further across the region, there is a growing sense that a return to the ideology of Tahrir could reanimate large numbers of people to let go of their fears and once again take to the streets for revolutionary change.

When that day comes, the bonds forged by activists whether in exile or prison will likely play a determinative role in shaping the futures of the region.

Mark LeVine is a professor of Middle Eastern History at University of California, Irvine, and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Lund University. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.