Can Egyptian-American Mohamed Soltan be Deported?

With Mohamed Soltan’s hunger strike exceeding 450 days, speculation is rife as to how long he can survive in an Egyptian prison. In early April, Soltan, who is an American-Egyptian dual citizen, was sentenced to life in prison—technically a twenty-five year sentence in Egypt. A new law introduced last November by Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi allowing for the deportation of foreign citizens, whether convicts or suspects, raised hopes that it would also apply to Soltan. It was under this law that Australian journalist Peter Greste was deported after being sentenced to seven years in a Cairo prison. A lack of any substantial visible steps in that direction, however, suggests that Soltan’s fate likely won’t differ from that of other activists who have received similarly harsh sentences.

Soltan was sentenced on charges of spreading false news and supporting the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood. He was arrested at the pro-Mohamed Morsi sit-in at Raba’a al-Adaweya following its violent dispersal in August 2013, where he had been helping foreign journalists cover the sit-in 

According to Mokhtar Mounir, a lawyer at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, the law that allowed for Greste’s deportation can technically be applied to Soltan. “Law number 140 for the year 2014 allows the repatriation of foreign prisoners to their home countries so they can serve their time or be retried there,” he said. While the law does not explicitly refer to dual citizenship, according to Mounir, “In the case of dual nationality, the other country of which this foreigner is a citizen also has the right to call for his repatriation, provided that he gives up his Egyptian citizenship.” Mounir noted that Soltan will not be forced to give up his Egyptian citizenship if the Egyptian state decides of its own accord to send him to the United States.

Soltan had told the court in March that he would never give up his Egyptian citizenship. “If I am given the choice between the Egyptian nationality and my freedom, I will choose the former,” he told the presiding judge. Maha Youssef, a member of Soltan’s defense team, said in early March that several officials asked him to give up his Egyptian citizenship if he wants the law to apply to him. “He totally rejects the idea and this is totally up to him,” she said.

Judge Refaat al-Sayed, the former head of the Cairo Court of Appeals, argued that the law does not apply to Soltan. “The law applies to foreigners who do not hold Egyptian citizenship,” he said. “Soltan’s renunciation of his Egyptian citizenship does not exempt him from facing trial in Egypt since he committed his crimes in Egypt while holding the Egyptian citizenship.” Sayed supported his argument with articles from the Egyptian Penal Code, which state that the law applies to every Egyptian who commits a crime inside Egypt. “The Penal Code does not make exceptions for dual nationals,” he added.

Last October, US State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki said that Washington “raised the case with Egyptian officials at the highest level.” A few weeks later, the Cairo Criminal Court, which sentenced Soltan, also reportedly refused a request submitted by the American Consulate in Cairo, asking for his release on medical grounds. Following his conviction, both the White House and State Department expressed their disappointment at the sentence he received. Soltan’s family, however, believes US authorities have not exhausted all efforts to secure his release. Soltan’s relative, Sara said on the day of the verdict, “They did not do what they are expected to do for an American citizen, possibly because of the complex relations between the US administration and the current Egyptian regime.”

Abed Ayoub, the legal director of the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee, argued that Washington is paying close attention to Soltan’s case and cited the statements issued by the White House and the State Department. “Those statements contain important political messages. True, they are not enough as long as no steps are taken, but something seems to be happening behind the scenes,” he said, not elaborating on what that might be, or the possible outcomes. Ayoub noted that Soltan is not the only American facing legal problems outside the United States. “There are dozens of similar cases in different countries.”

In Egypt, Soltan’s case is either met with apathy or contempt. Freedom for the Brave, a grassroots initiative campaigning for the release of political prisoners, declared solidarity with Soltan soon after his arrest. They called upon Egyptians to send letters to the Prosecutor General demanding his release for humanitarian reasons, while Twitter campaigns in English and in Arabic were launched. Several rights organizations also issued statements expressing their concerns over Soltan’s deteriorating health and demanded his transfer to a hospital, without calling for his release. Signatories included the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the Nadim Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, and the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression. None of these campaigns have had any impact. Many Egyptians, however, have either never heard of Soltan, have lost interest in following the news of political prisoners, or worse yet have lauded the sentence. Support for the current regime has shifted the balance against revolutionary youths, who are now seen by many as detrimental to Egypt’s national security. Like Alaa Abdel Fattah and Ahmed Douma, Soltan is just another troublemaker. Securing support for Soltan’s case is made all the more challenging given his connection to the Muslim Brotherhood. While Soltan is not a member himself, his father—Salah Soltan—is a leading Brotherhood figure and was sentenced to death in the same case.

The final call for Soltan’s deportation lies not with a judge but rather is a decision made by presidential decree. Greste’s deportation served Egypt-Australia relations, and came after much pressure from the Australian government. In the case of Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fahmy, who was tried alongside Greste, renouncing his Egyptian citizenship appears to have had no effect on bringing about his deportation, as he faces retrial. Soltan’s family ties to the Brotherhood make a presidential decree highly unlikely. 

Sonia Farid, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of English Literature at Cairo University. She is a translator, editor, and political activist. Her social work focuses on political awareness and women’s rights and her writing interests include society, politics, and security in Egypt. She took part in a number of local and international conferences and published several academic papers. She can be reached at