Arguing that one of the Muslim Brotherhood's most doggedly antisemitic preachers has experienced a sudden change of heart following years of violent and conspiratorial rhetoric aimed at Jews, Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) has joined Democratic efforts to free Salah Soltan, a former legal resident of the U.S. who was condemned to a life sentence in Egyptian prison for charges including "terrorism", "murder", and the "use of explosives."
After reading a remorseful letter in which Soltan apologizes for a lifetime of anti-Jewish bigotry, Cardin submitted a statement to the Congressional Record on July 27, insisting that Soltan "sees the light and realizes the error of his ways." Yet, Cardin and his Democratic colleagues may have been sold a false bill of goods, as Soltan's about-face appears to be nothing more than a self-serving attempt to rehabilitate his public image in hopes of winning over Western supporters.
Muslim Brotherhood Revolutionary
Cardin is just the latest Democrat to rally behind Soltan, an Islamist scholar who, along with his son Mohamed, relocated to Egypt sometime around the so-called Arab Spring, joining Islamist revolutionaries who sought to govern the country under Islamic law. When the democratically-elected Muslim Brotherhood government turned out to be indistinguishable from the authoritarian dictatorship it replaced, millions of Egyptians returned to the streets in 2013 to demand the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi and his Islamist administration.
Soltan, who served under Morsi's short-lived presidency as the Deputy Minister of Islamic Endowment, was convicted of coordinating an armed rebellion that sought to re-establish Muslim Brotherhood rule in the face of popular unrest and military intervention. In a pair of mass trials that were marred by extensive due process and fair trial violations, Soltan and his co-defendants were found guilty of planning assaults on police and government buildings and coordinating attacks against the transitional military government.
The former minister eventually received a life sentence for his alleged crimes, while his son – arrested for his participation in the Muslim Brotherhood opposition – was released to U.S. authorities in 2015 under the false promise that he would continue serving his sentence in an American prison.
Despite the human rights concerns surrounding his imprisonment, it is hard to imagine a less deserving beneficiary of the international efforts to free them than Soltan. The Islamist scholar regularly trafficked in antisemitic tropes and blood libels, accusing Jews of assassinating President John F. Kennedy, spreading the AIDS virus through infected prostitutes, and using the skulls of Palestinian babies as ashtrays.
Yet, Cardin is ready to forgive and forget, citing a letter from Soltan that his family claims was "smuggled" from an Egyptian prison and addressed to his newborn grandson. The letter, written with an eloquence and clarity that suggests careful editing or translation, is filled with qualified pseudo-apologies.
"I had only intended to stand up for justice," Soltan allegedly wrote to explain his well-documented calls for violence against Jews. "As the [Palestinian] death toll mounted, my statements sometimes veered toward antisemitism," he admitted.
To justify his bigoted attitudes, Soltan peppered his confession with accusations of Israeli cruelty, which he claims "awakened my political consciousness and activism." He wrote of "senseless bloodshed ... the desecration of sacred sites," and "the losses and struggles of the Palestinian people and their powerlessness." Nothing was written of Israeli self-determination, Israel's right to exist, or even its right to self-defense.
Midway through his soul-searching monologue, which readers are to believe was not intended for public consumption, the self-pitying Soltan appears to inadvertently reveal the true motive behind his tepid apology. "In fact," he wrote, "my oppressors used my decade-old stances to justify and fend off pressure from concerned western parties about my release."
Public Image Makeover
It does not require a speculative leap to conclude that Soltan's letter is less an act of contrition, and more likely a self-interested exercise in image rehabilitation.
Indeed, Soltan's hunch that his critics were using his record of bigotry against him appears to be justified. A May report from the International Federation of Human Rights noted that Egypt "deployed lobbyists to cite decades old problematic remarks by Salah Soltan to dissuade policymakers from advocating for his release."
When Senate Democrats sought to condition military aid to Egypt in 2021 based on Soltan's continued imprisonment, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) questioned the undertaking, accusing the "hate preacher" of spreading "the most vicious sorts of libels against Jews."
"Why are Senate Democrats trying to release vicious antisemites?" Cruz asked from the Senate floor.
It's a fair question. Egypt is a country where persecuted Coptic Christians, journalists, and mainstream politicians are jailed merely for pointing out inequities and human rights abuses. An estimated sixty thousand political prisoners are languishing in Egyptian jail cells, subjected to filthy living conditions, routine torture, and the denial of life-saving medications.
Certainly, every prisoner is entitled to basic human rights. But what do Cardin and his fellow Democrats find so endearing about a rabid antisemite and extremist preacher?
First, Soltan's daughter-in-law Shebita works for Cardin as a legislative aide, according to Alana Goodman of the Washington Free Beacon. Married to Soltan's son Mohamed, she has worked for the senator since at least October 2022.
More importantly, since Soltan's arrest, his children have been generous donors to Democratic candidates, pumping tens of thousands of dollars into races involving lawmakers who later championed the cleric's release. Goodman pointed to Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), who tweeted in May that Soltan "should never have been imprisoned to begin with" after receiving a $5,800 donation from Mohamed ahead of his 2022 reelection bid.
There's another element at play: Democratic support for Soltan and other Islamist prisoners reflects the American left's unofficial doctrine of backing the Muslim Brotherhood, mistaking its totalitarian political theology for a viable democratic alternative in the Middle East. This support extends to the Brotherhood's powerful American lobby, which Soltan belonged to as a founding figure.
Like Father, Like Son
Mohamed, who shares his father's dislike for Jews, has done a first rate job of portraying the senior Soltan as a moderate Islamic scholar who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He's had practice, having sent his own "smuggled" correspondences from an Egyptian jail cell, including a 2014 video where the Islamist revolutionary sought to rebrand himself as a "humanitarian activist."
Like a veteran publicity agent, Mohamed repeated patriotic slogans, "citing the 'land of the free and the home of the brave,'" calling himself a "damn proud [Ohio State] Buckeye," and claiming that, prior to his arrest, he was merely "trying to share his American principles with young Egyptians."
Patrick Poole, a counterterrorism analyst who lived for a time just around the corner from the Soltan family home in the sleepy suburb of Hilliard, Ohio, spent years documenting signs of radicalism and bigotry from the father-son duo. Poole wasn't buying Mohamed's image makeover. He called the rebranding "a thoroughly fictitious rewriting of history," pointing to instances in 2013 where Mohamed served on the front lines of the Muslim Brotherhood resistance, including one interview during which Mohamed admitted to the presence of enemy torture victims among his revolutionary comrades.
Did the younger Soltan – a Muslim Brotherhood propagandist – help reinvent his father's identity as a reformed bigot? Efforts to reach Mohamed to discuss his father's letter and request an original copy went unanswered.
Whether Soltan's letter is a candid attempt to make amends or a sophisticated publicity stunt, Democrats and dozens of human rights groups are backing an Islamist ideologue who spent much of his life supporting terrorists and jihadist groups.
In 2002, Soltan attended a Hajj pilgrimage with future Al Qaeda operative Anwar al-Awlaki, a prolific jihadist recruiter who would be killed in a U.S. drone strike. In 2006, Soltan's application for U.S. citizenship was denied after he appeared at a Hamas rally in Turkey. A year later, the Islamist scholar appeared in public with senior Hamas leader Khaled Mishal and Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, the late Muslim Brotherhood spiritual leader known for his fiery hatred of Jews and his calls to attack U.S. military personnel.
Soltan used his standing within the international Muslim Brotherhood movement to promote violence and hatred towards Westerners and Jews. Speaking on a Hamas-run television network in 2010, the Egyptian cleric recited Islamic scripture promising the imminent destruction of Jews at the hands of Muslims. In another television appearance, he endorsed war against the U.S. for supporting Israel, promising that "Allah" was capable of "obliterating America and any other oppressor."
On August 26, 2011, with Egypt gripped by chaos and uncertainty, Soltan appeared on Al Jazeera to provide religious guidance to the country. "As someone who has studied Islamic law, specializing in Islamic jurisprudence, I am calling to kill the [Israeli] ambassador, not just expel him," he said. "Any Zionist – tourist or other – who enters Egypt must be killed," Soltan added, claiming that the order was a legal religious ruling.
Days later, an estimated three thousand Egyptian protestors stormed the Israeli Embassy in Greater Cairo, breaching a security wall with a battering ram and ransacking the building as six embassy staff members huddled for protection behind the steel walls of an emergency safe room.
Boosters from the Beginning
Apparently convinced by Soltan's letter, Cardin – who also serves as the Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance for the fifty-seven-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – called on Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to pardon the former Muslim Brotherhood official.
"I find it refreshing and notable that [Soltan] has taken the time and the trouble to send a heartfelt message to his grandchildren," Cardin told his colleagues. "He has accepted responsibility for his previous hateful words, and is seeking forgiveness from those harmed by it."
However, it didn't take an ideological transformation on Soltan's behalf for Democrats to back the sixty-three-year-old cleric. Long before Soltan repudiated his antisemitic ways, Democrats acted as boosters for the imprisoned Islamist.
In 2021, President Joe Biden quietly withdrew $130 million in military aid to Egypt as pressure to improve human rights and release sixteen Egyptian prisoners. Despite inquiries from Senate Republicans, the Biden administration refused to reveal the names of the prisoners, though it is highly likely Soltan was one of them. Soltan's children gave a combined $72,500 to Biden's presidential campaign in 2020, according to federal elections records.
Led by Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), another beneficiary of Soltan family largesse, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee tweeted in support of the cleric in May, asking Egyptian authorities to "release him" and provide "immediate access to lifesaving medical care." For three straight years, Senate Democrats have passed appropriations bills for the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs authorizing the Secretary of State to withhold up to $320 million in military assistance to Egypt based in part on Soltan's continued imprisonment.
In a July 28 letter, Cardin joined ten Senate Democrats in escalating matters by signing a letter urging Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to "withhold the full amount of $320 million" authorized by the 2022 appropriations bill, based on Egypt's failure to strengthen democratic institutions and protect civil liberties. The letter refers to the treatment of "tens of thousands of political prisoners, including at least two United States legal permanent residents."
Egypt is a critical U.S. ally in terms of counter-terrorism and regional security, faced with an Islamic State insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula. Yet, a growing number of Senate Democrats are willing to compromise this partnership for the likes of an Islamist who keeps company with terrorists and jihadists.
The campaign to free Soltan is a sideshow to larger Democratic Party production — one that naively promotes the radical Muslim Brotherhood as a legitimate alternative to Western-style democracy, propping up Brotherhood militias and political parties in outposts around the world, and partnering with their American proxies.
Just as the Muslim Brotherhood is not a peaceful socio-religious movement, Soltan is not the respected Islamic scholar that Democrats and the media describe, and even if his attempt to atone for a lifetime of antisemitism is genuine, there are thousands of more deserving political prisoners who didn't spend their careers religiously justifying violence towards Jews.
Benjamin Baird is the director of MEF Action, an advocacy project of the Middle East Forum. Visit the MEF Action Center to participate in the Forum's advocacy campaigns.