FOR NEARLY TWO YEARS, Mohamed Soltan, a 26-year-old citizen of both Egypt and America, endured torture, deprivation, and cruelty while locked in the prisons of Egyptian military dictator Abdul Fattah al-Sisi. In 2013, he was among thousands arrested in a country-wide crackdown on civil society activists, journalists, and members of the deposed government following Sisi’s coup and massacre of protestors in Cairo’s Raba’a Adawiya Square.
Soltan was released this year after a 400-day hunger strike in which he lost over 130 pounds and nearly died, saved only by the intervention of the American government on his behalf. Despite bending to pressure in his case, the Egyptian regime continues to imprison as many as 41,000 other political prisoners, recent Human Rights Watch estimates suggest. And Soltan worries that extremism is incubating in those facilities, where he witnessed and experienced torture. Today, he says that, through its oppressive practices, the Sisi government is effectively acting as a “recruiting agent” for extremist groups like the Islamic State.
“The regime is fostering an environment in their prisons that makes them a fertile ground for that kind of ideology to flourish,” Soltan says. “The brutality and the overwhelming loss of hope is creating a situation which fits [the Islamic State’s] narrative, and they’re using it to try and recruit people and spread their message.”
Despite Soltan’s ordeal, some of his own relatives support Sisi. Like many families in Egypt today, they are starkly divided between support for Sisi’s military regime and for the deposed government of Mohamed Morsi. Soltan’s father, Salah, who was also taken into custody, was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and served in Morsi’s government, although Soltan himself remained aloof from the party. “I was against the policies of Morsi, but I would’ve liked to have seen a referendum or early elections instead of a coup,” Soltan says.