Democratic Senator Lobbies Egypt to Free Cleric Who Called for Murder of Israeli Tourists

All in the family: Salah Solton's daughter-in-law is Sen. Ben Cardin's legislative aide. She is married to Solton's son, a Democratic donor who has spent years lobbying for his release.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D., Md.) / Photo by Kevin Dietsch, Getty Images
August 3, 2023

Sen. Ben Cardin (D., Md.) is asking the Egyptian government to release a Muslim cleric who called for the murder of Israeli tourists. The daughter-in-law of the imprisoned religious leader, who apologized in a letter this month for his calls to violence and history of anti-Semitic statements, also happens to work on the senator's staff.

Cardin’s request follows similar calls from other Democratic lawmakers for Egypt to release the elderly Muslim Brotherhood senior leader, Salah Soltan, a U.S. green card holder. It also comes after years of lobbying and Democratic political donations by Soltan’s son, Mohamed, who is married to a Cardin legislative aides, Habiba Shebita.

Soltan—who was locked up as part of Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s attempt to crush the Muslim Brotherhood opposition movement in 2013—has called for the murder of all Israeli tourists, claimed Jews use the blood of Christians to make bread, and proposed "obliterating America" in a holy war.

But Cardin, who also serves as the special representative for anti-Semitism to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, claimed last Thursday that Soltan has had a change of heart and urged el-Sisi to "extend his presidential pardon to Soltan, so that he may leave Egypt and be reunited with his family" in the United States.

In a letter to his newborn grandson, Soltan "addresses his previously held anti-Semitic positions and remarks, apologizes for them and disavows them," said Cardin in a statement submitted to the congressional record last week.

In the letter, Soltan wrote that, prior to his prison sentence, his defense of Palestinians was "fueled by anger which turned to hate."

"[M]y statements sometimes veered toward antisemitism," he wrote. "I deeply regret times when I engaged in that kind of rhetoric that I shudder to recall and condemn all rhetoric that is discriminatory, hateful, and violent."

Soltan added that he is now in a prison "where the judge, warden, officer, and guards who wrongfully imprison, torture, and deny me basic medical needs are all Muslim" while many of his defenders have been Jewish human rights lawyers and Christian politicians such as Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) and the late Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.).

The letter is a major deviation from Soltan’s long history of virulent anti-Semitism and calls for violence against Jews.

In 2011, Soltan issued an Islamic religious decree ordering the death of Israel’s ambassador and Israeli tourists in Egypt. "As someone who has studied Islamic law, specializing in Islamic jurisprudence, I am calling to kill the [Israeli] ambassador, not just expel him," Soltan said in a statement that aired on Al Jazeera and was translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute.

"Any Zionist—tourist or other—who enters Egypt must be killed," he added. "We will not kill tourists from any [other] country. We stress that this fatwa is directed only toward those Zionists who destroyed our country, killed our people, and shed our blood on our land."

Soltan has also argued that Jews used the blood of Christians to make bread on Passover, an anti-Semitic trope known as "blood libel."

"I want our brothers, and the whole world, to know what's going on these days during Passover," Soltan said in a 2010 appearance on the Hamas-run Al-Aqsa TV. "Every year, at this time, the Zionists kidnap several non-Muslims—Christians and others."

"They took [a doctor] on one of these holidays and slaughtered him, along with the nurse," Soltan continued. "Then they kneaded the matzos with the blood of Dr. Toma and his nurse. They do this every year," he said.

Soltan’s children have donated tens of thousands of dollars to Democratic lawmakers over the years, while pushing for their father’s release. Shebita, Soltan’s daughter-in-law who married his son Mohamed in 2017, has worked as a legislative aide to Cardin since last October, according to congressional records.

Cardin did not respond to a request for comment.

Sen. Chris Coons (D., Del.) added an amendment to the 2024 State Department appropriations bill that would require the State Department to consider Salah Soltan’s case as a condition for foreign aid to Egypt, which was approved by the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs.

Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said in a May Twitter post that they were "concerned" about Soltan’s health struggles in prison and called on Egypt to "release him & allow immediate access to lifesaving medical care."

The post came months after Soltan’s son, Mohamed, donated $5,800 to Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez (D., N.J.) last year. Mohamed also gave at least $10,000 to Joe Biden’s presidential campaign in 2020 and $5,800 to Rep. Don Beyer (D., Va.) in 2021. Beyer in May tweeted that the cleric "should never have been imprisoned to begin with, but the conditions he faces—including denial of essential health care—are now threatening his life."

Soltan’s daughter, Hanaa, gave $47,000 to Biden’s campaign and $18,600 to the Democratic National Committee in 2020, according to campaign finance records.