Category: Featured News, Graduate Profiles 2021, News, Students

Title: Former Political Prisoner Mohamed Soltan (MSFS’21) Is Hopeful for Future as He Prepares to Graduate

Author: Mairead MacRae
Date Published: May 7, 2021

When Mohamed Soltan (MSFS’21) studies the complexities of international relations in class, he has a deep understanding of what is at stake. The Master of Science in Foreign Service (MSFS) student spent nearly two years as a political prisoner in what he describes as “an Egyptian dungeon” before diplomatic efforts by international human rights agencies, the Obama administration and Congress helped to secure his release. 

Black-and-white profile picture of Mohamed Soltan (MSFS'21)
Soltan will graduate from the MSFS program on May 24.

When he was deported back to the U.S. in 2015, he had spent 489 days on hunger strike, which he began in protest of the torture and inhumane treatment he experienced while detained.

Shortly after his release, Soltan founded The Freedom Initiative, an advocacy non-profit organization that supports political prisoners in the Arab world through casework support, government and public relations and legal action. 

“If the seemingly impossible mission of getting me released was within reach, then we owed it to the 60,000 others who were still in prison to continue and build on that work,” he says of his motivation for founding the organization.

As one of the world’s leading voices for justice for political prisoners, Soltan turned to SFS to develop the skills and network to further what he considers his life’s work: advancing democracy and human rights.

Now, as he prepares to graduate, Soltan is ready to do just that. 

“I want to institutionalize and grow ecosystems of influence on U.S. policymaking that advances fundamental human rights and democratic governance,” he says. “SFS has absolutely contributed to how that vision will be carried out.”

At A Glance

Hometown: Various midwest towns by way of Egypt!

Program: Master of Science in Foreign Service (MSFS) Program, Global Politics and Security Concentration

Language Proficiency: Arabic

Off-Campus Activities: Co-founder, The Freedom Initiative; Board member, Egyptian Human Rights Forum and Sinai Foundation for Human Rights.

From College Campus to Prison Cell

In January 2011, Soltan was studying economics at Ohio State University when large-scale protests erupted across Egypt. The demonstrations — which opposed the increasingly authoritarian rule of President Hosni Mubarak — were among a series of concurrent anti-government civil disobedience movements across the Middle East that came to be known as the Arab Spring.

Soltan — who was born in Egypt but grew up in the Midwest — took an extended leave from school to join activists in Tahrir Square, Cairo. When he came back to Ohio to complete his degree, he toured college campuses around the U.S. to share his first-hand account of the revolution, including the atmosphere among the crowds outside the presidential palace when Mubarak resigned.

Soltan sits on the steps of his home in Fairfax, Virginia
Soltan — who nows lives in Fairfax, VA — was imprisoned after documenting protests against the overthrow of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi in 2013.

After graduating in 2012, Soltan returned to Egypt. When the military removed Mubarak’s successor Mohamed Morsi from power in July 2013, he documented the sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya Square protesting the coup. 

He was live-tweeting as Egyptian security forces violently raided the protest camp, leaving nearly 1,000 people dead. Soltan himself sustained a gunshot wound and was arrested 11 days later. 

He would spend the next 633 days in prison. 

His detention, and high-profile hunger strike, gained widespread media attention, through which Soltan — who is an American citizen — implored the U.S. government and international community to take action on human rights abuses perpetrated by the Egyptian military regime.

“Mr. President, all I long for is the opportunity to get together this Thanksgiving with family and friends and enjoy some turkey and pie,” he wrote in a November 2013 letter to President Barack Obama, which was published in The New York Times.

Pursuing Georgetown Opportunities

Now, nearly six years after his release, Soltan is fighting to bring more political prisoners home to their families. 

Throughout his time at MSFS, he has been working full-time with The Freedom Initiative, applying the insights he has gained in the classroom and the networks he has fostered on campus and in Washington, D.C. to his advocacy work. 

Soltan and his wife, Habiba Shebita, take a selfie in front of Healy Hall
Soltan says his wife, Habiba Shebita, first alerted him to the opportunities of a Georgetown education.

Soltan credits his wife with first drawing his attention to the opportunities that a Georgetown degree might afford to someone in his position. 

“She brilliantly finished her MA in Democracy and Governance at Georgetown in a year and a half. She pushed me to continue my education and pursue a degree to elevate my knowledge, organize my time and crystallize my advocacy acumen,” he explains.

“Friends who were MSFS students encouraged me to apply to the program, and made sure that I actually did,” he continues. “I am forever grateful to them for helping me make one of the best choices of my life!”

A Supportive MSFS Community

Working and studying is difficult at any time — “having a full-time job while enrolled in a full-time program probably shouldn’t be recommended!” Soltan jokes — but the graduate student has also had a global pandemic to contend with. 

“I longed for the in-person human interactions that take place in a regular classroom setting. It was a struggle to adapt to virtual learning, keeping the attention span and focus,” he says of virtual learning.

Mohamed Soltan is pictured seated for a panel event. He is wearing a suit and talking into a microphone.
A leading voice on the rights of political prisoners, Soltan found a supportive community at SFS.

However, the supportive community he encountered at MSFS ensured that his time in the program was extremely rewarding, despite the upheaval. “The MSFS program is the best program in the world, not just because of its academic rigor, outstanding faculty and brilliant colleagues, but for the community and family culture that exists,” he stresses. “With every challenge or problem there is a faculty member, staff member and/or a colleague ready to help.”

Soltan says that two faculty members in particular supported him throughout his degree: Professor Nicole Bibbins Sedaca, MSFS Deputy Director, and Professor Joseph Hellman, MSFS Distinguished Fellow and Co-Concentration Chair in Global Politics and Security.

“They guided me through the insanity of managing and balancing my academic and work life. Without their guidance and motivation, I doubt I would have survived the program!” Soltan admits.

With the backing of peers and mentors, Soltan pursued learning opportunities that exposed him to new ideas, enabling him to develop holistic expertise.

“I come from the human rights community and I challenged myself to take as many national security and intelligence courses as I could to gain a better understanding of a world that I am not familiar with,” he explains. “Having gained that knowledge and experience, my professional interests have expanded into the intersection of national security and human rights.”

Soltan remembers one class as being particularly invaluable. Practice of Policy Tradecraft is a core course for all MSFS students in his concentration, Global Politics and Security, and provides practical, applied training on devising and implementing policy. The class culminates in a practicum project where students work in teams to develop concrete proposals.

“The class had a big impact on me as a student,” he recalls. “The process of working in diverse teams and with peer reviewers to develop strategy in a group setting was tremendously helpful in getting a window into how policy making takes shape.”

Hope for the Future

After graduation, Soltan plans to scale up The Freedom Initiative, “to meet the challenges of deteriorating human rights conditions in the Arab world.”

He also hopes to explore the world of business and investment, particularly as it relates to the media industry.

However, while he came to SFS and Washington, D.C. to level up his professional opportunities, he says that the people he encountered in his program are what he will miss most now that his graduate studies are coming to an end. 

“The students here are brilliant,” he says. “I have learned from my fellow colleagues as much, if not more, as from my professors.”

Community, he says, has been the hallmark of his time thus far in Washington, D.C. “Building genuine relationships and friendships with people that are built not just on self-interest, but on mutual respect and care, goes a long way,” he notes.

Soltan poses for a photo in the Oval Office with then-U.S. President Barack Obama
Soltan (right) met with then-U.S. President Barack Obama after his release in 2015.

Soltan knows that he is embarking on the next stage of his advocacy work at a challenging time in global affairs, as the world attempts to rebuild after the devastating impact of COVID-19. 

However, he is hopeful about the opportunities for international solidarity this historic moment presents. “Like climate change, financial crisis and technology, infectious diseases and public health are global challenges that will define our world in the future, offering paths towards collaborations through diplomatic and security channels even amongst adversaries,” he explains. 

This hopeful outlook is one that defines how Soltan sees the world, despite the suffering he himself has endured. On the day he turned 27, 290 days into his hunger strike, Soltan penned a reflection from his prison cell for The New York Times . In it, he explained how his birthday had filled him with optimism, despite his dire circumstances. 

“That’s the thing about birthdays, anniversaries, new years, etc. They inspire reflections of the past, thoughts and emotions around purpose, priorities, plans, future and hope,” he wrote. 

Despite an uncertain global future, Soltan believes that his next milestone — his graduation from SFS — will become a similar source of strength for the days ahead.

“I hope to look back and think that the worst was behind us, and because of our collective hard work and resilience, the future is brighter not gloomier.”