Mustafa Kassem’s death in Egypt shows that hunger strikes only work when governments fear the consequences


In prison, he met Mustafa Kassem, a fellow Egyptian American who had been swept up in mass arrests while visiting family in Cairo. But when Soltan was freed, Kassem was not released alongside him. On Monday, after Kassem staged his own hunger strike that lasted more than a year, the New York taxi driver and father of two young children died in Egypt of apparent heart failure.

Kassem was held for five years in pretrial detention and then sentenced in 2018 to 15 years behind bars on charges that he took part in protests against the Egyptian government.

“It’s very devastating, and honestly it was tragic for me,” said Soltan, who after his release founded an advocacy group for other prisoners in Egypt. “It was a call I’ve been dreading for a couple of years now.”

Egyptian prisons hold tens of thousands of political prisoners. At least six U.S. citizens and two U.S. permanent residents are in Egyptian detention.

During Soltan’s hunger strike, he only drank water with some vitamins and electrolytes, he said in a phone call this week. Even after he went in and out of a coma and suffered a pulmonary embolism, he continued the strike, only supplementing milk and yogurt products toward the end of his detention.

“They first take away your freedom, then they try to take your dignity and your willpower,” Soltan said, referring to prison authorities. “The idea of the hunger strike is to reverse that process, use whatever is left out of your willpower, ability to eat or not eat, to regain your dignity and hopefully regain your freedom.”

Hunger strikes have long been used as a form of political and personal protest. In apartheid-era South Africa, hundreds of black prisoners staged hunger strikes to call for their release. Mohandas K. Gandhi famously staged lengthy hunger strikes to protest British rule over India. Palestinians held in Israeli prisons have gone on hunger strikes to demand better living conditions — in 2017, more than 1,000 went on strike at once. Many men held in the U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo Bay refused food, which led to controversy over whether U.S. authorities were justified in force feeding them.

Soltan said that before beginning his strike in Egypt, he drew inspiration in part from the persistence of Irish hunger strikers.

A century ago, Terence MacSwiney, a member of Parliament and lord mayor of Cork, staged a hunger strike to demand his release from prison after he was sentenced to two years on sedition charges. Ireland was under British control at the time, and British authorities feared MacSwiney’s death could boost the Irish cause for independence. Still, they refused to release him, and MacSwiney died 74 days later.

“There was astonishment at the time that somebody could last for that long because there wasn’t much awareness of how the human body could deal with hunger striking,” said Diarmaid Ferriter, a history professor at University College Dublin. “It captured international attention because it was a powerful image of the Irish republic against the British Empire. It generated enormous emotion.”

Decades later, during the violent period of unrest in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles, hunger strikers drew inspiration from earlier strikers such as MacSwiney, and some managed to achieve their demands. Dolours and Marian Price, sisters who were arrested for their involvement in bombings in London, staged hunger strikes and fought back against their force-feeders. They were ultimately transferred from prison in London back to Northern Ireland.

Others succumbed to starvation. Bobby Sands, an Irish Republican, was elected to Parliament while leading a group of prisoners on a hunger strike. He died after 66 days.

The strikes drew attention to the Irish Republicans’ political cause. But British authorities proved that even the threat of an elected member of Parliament dying wasn’t enough to force their capitulation.

Still, Ferriter said, “for some people internationally, the Irish have provided some kind of illustration of what might be achieved by a successful hunger strike.”

But in Egypt, Soltan said, he fears hunger strikers have little leverage compared with that of some more successful movements.

“I can’t imagine what … the 300 hunger striking and 60,000 political prisoners went to sleep feeling when they found out that Mustafa died,” Soltan said.

If an American with powerful government officials advocating on his behalf can die in Egyptian custody, he said, it does not bode well for other prisoners.


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