In Libya, where he rode on ships with Libyan rebels and mingled with prisoners loyal to Muammar al-Qaddafi, Sotloff wrote about the towering challenges that the country would face in the post-Qaddafi era—reflections that appear prescient given the chaos in Libya today. Here's a report Sotloff filed for Time in August 2011:
"What is a constitution?" Zubaida Ben Taher asked a group of curious Libyans gathered in a lecture hall at Benghazi's Garyounis University in early April. Though the writer's talk was ostensibly about the electoral process, he had to begin with the bare basics when addressing an audience that had almost no knowledge of what democracy entails. In early June another lecture on the same topic began with a discussion on various political systems such as democracies, communist regimes and Third World dictatorships. With no experience with elections, Libyans are compelled to begin their transition towards democracy by starting with its fundamentals.
During the coup against Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, Sotloff, in an article for the World Affairs Journal, questioned the narratives that were dividing Egyptian society:
When I told my Egyptian friend Ahmad Kamal that I wanted to go to the Muslim Brotherhood protest camp in Nasser City, a pallid look gripped him. “Don’t go there!” he pleaded. “They are fanatics who hate foreigners. Americans like you are in danger there.” After an hour of fruitless conversation over endless glasses of sweet tea, I rose, shook Ahmad’s hand, and headed straight to the lair where he believed I would be devoured.
But when I arrived at Nasser City, the picture Ahmad painted of long-bearded, club-wielding extremists bent on roughing up secular Egyptians was just as devoid of truth [as] so much else in this divided country. Coups depicted as revolutions, peaceful protesters painted as fanatics, and disgruntled citizens hailed as revolutionaries have transformed Egypt into a circus where the main attraction is the uncertainty of heading into the unknown.
He began many of his articles with personal anecdotes and sprinkled his reporting with mundane details like the precise price of bread, reminding readers that faceless forces like Syria's civil war and Egypt's military coup were fundamentally altering the lives of real people, in divergent but no less devastating ways. Here's another snippet of his report from Aleppo:
Muhammad Jadu wishes time could move backward. The electrician does not understand what the rebels are fighting for, nor does he care. He merely knows the war has dealt a death blow to his business; the city has not had electricity for several weeks. Today, Jadu spends his time at a friend's wheel and rim shop, drinking tea and smoking an endless string of cigarettes. "This war has made everything worse and nothing better," Jadu laments. "Why do we need it? We have enough problems in Syria."
In the poor neighborhood of Sukari, where buildings stack up on one another, Bakari Kajaji is performing his nightly prayers. The flickers of an oil lamp provide just enough light to illuminate his red prayer rug. Near the bed along the other side of the wall, auburn embers in a small barbecue grill supply a consistent stream of heat that keeps Kajaji and his wife from shivering. With no power and heat, the 58-year-old spends most of his day in the dark, mumbling to his wife about topics ranging from the wet staircase to his desire to buy a new transistor radio. Though he has not worked at his laundromat for two months -- one of his bosses was killed by shelling and the other fled to Egypt -- and his savings are almost exhausted, Kajaji is not complaining. "It is better to starve a thousand days with no electricity and heat than to endure one more day of Assad. We have everything we need."
News of Sotloff's killing comes less than a week after his mother, Shirley Sotloff, released a video appealing to his captors for mercy. "Steven is a journalist who traveled to the Middle East to cover the suffering of Muslims at the hand of tyrants," she said. "I want what every mother wants: to live to see her children's children. I plead with you to grant me this."