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From Harvard Medical Student to Detained Egyptian Activist

Will Harvard support its persecuted alumnus for fulfilling its mission?

By Omar Soliman
Omar Soliman is a graduate of Harvard Medical School.

On September 1, 2019 — the day Bostonians call “moving day” — I woke up anxious thinking about the truck, praying everything would go smoothly. Then I picked up my phone and found a message received at around 4 a.m. EST from my uncle in Cairo. It said, “Hey Omar, call me as soon as you wake up.”

I called immediately and he started: “You know your brother Mohamed’s tweet yesterday about fixing the healthcare system in Egypt went viral.” I could tell something wasn’t right — this was more than internet fame. Security forces had come a few hours prior, removed my brother, and taken the phones and laptops of my father and sister. My uncle tried to make it all seem fine. My brother would be back soon, he reassured me, and added that he would call me later after he went to my family’s home. “Rest assured,” he said, but my legs couldn’t carry me, and I found myself sitting on the stairs thinking for a few minutes.

I told myself, my brother used to be an elected official in the Egyptian Dental Association. He’s just completed his graduate studies at Harvard Medical School a few weeks ago, and he has never been arrested before. I thought the government would just question him for a few hours and then release him. Though the many friends and family members that I called all showed sympathy and assured me that he would be fine, something inside me told me otherwise.

Unfortunately, I was right. My brother has now been detained for over 150 days without a trial.

As with many Egyptian youth who were hopeful after the January 25 revolution in 2011, my brother Dr. Mohamed Abdellatif had been working hard to advance his country. A technocrat and dentist, he chose to focus on improving the healthcare system in Egypt and advocating for the rights of healthcare professionals who are increasingly fleeing the country. In fact, half of them have already fled and as many as 83 percent of those remaining have expressed interest in leaving once they get the proper opportunity. This state of affairs is no secret — the Minister of Health in Egypt, Hala Zayed, acknowledged as much in a televised interview in early 2019.

Building on his extensive medical experience combined with his Harvard education, Dr. Abdellatif presented five remedies to stop the brain drain, such as restructuring compensation packages and strengthening security in hospitals to protect healthcare professionals from being beaten by patients’ families. His suggested remedies, which he posted on Twitter, were so resonant that thousands of healthcare professionals reacted positively to them, leading to more widespread media coverage.

My brother expected a positive reaction from the government to his tweet. Instead, his tweet marked the start of the most traumatic experience in his life. For nine days, after he was taken by force from his home, we had no way to know his whereabouts, and later learned that he remained blindfolded and handcuffed for the entire time. Then, he appeared at a prosecution hearing where he was added to a falsified case. He has now been detained for over 150 days without a trial.

What is more shocking is the weak public reaction to his arrest. I once posted about him in a local Facebook group for Harvard alumni in Egypt, pleading for their help, but my post was removed and I was silenced from the group for a week. The only positive reaction I received was that one of the group members reached out to me privately and showed sympathy.

My experience reflects how the news about someone unjustly detained, tortured, or even killed in custody in Egypt has become the norm. These atrocities happen to American and European Union citizens, a former Egyptian president, and public figures — and the world is just silent. Or worse than silence: The U.S. president praises and continues to support the Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Thus people in Egypt have become hopeless and the regime has become immune to shaming.

Even Harvard Medical School signed an agreement with the Egyptian Ministry of Health in late 2019, to collaborate and provide training for Egyptian medical professionals, despite the government’s abysmal human rights record — not least against researchers and intellectuals. As more than 200 prominent British academics put it, in a letter opposing scholarly partnerships between the U.K. and Egypt, “We question the wisdom and legitimacy of this move to do business-as-usual with an authoritarian regime that systematically attacks research, education and academic freedom.” Harvard should uphold its integrity and scrap this agreement, as some British universities did in the aftermath of the 2018 letter.

Furthermore, I call upon the entire Harvard community to act to secure my brother’s freedom and that of all Egyptians unjustly detained by their government. Many members of this community have the capacity to help do so. We need to deliver a message to the upcoming generations: “We are behind people who fight for just causes anywhere in the world!”

Omar Soliman is a graduate of Harvard Medical School.

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