Egypt, accusations and a Human Rights Watch report

This is Egypt in 2014. It is not the first time, nor will it be the last, where basic rights are politicized

H.A. Hellyer
H.A. Hellyer
Published: Updated:
Read Mode
100% Font Size
7 min read

In the past week, something of a drama erupted in Egypt, throughout the private and public media, around a particular report by a U.S.-based human rights organization, Human Rights Watch (HRW). It was clear from the response that many media outlets were incredibly sensitive about this report, and what it focused on (see here for one summary). For the foreseeable future, the name ‘Human Rights Watch’ will join a growing list of ‘ugly’ words within the Egyptian media, alongside ‘reconciliation’, or ‘transitional justice’.

It got to the point where sensitivities were so dramatic, one wondered if the episode would be described in relation to the hotel in which the report was to be released in, similar to the ‘Marriot Cell’ case earlier this year. It did not get quite to that point (yet), and thus we expect to be spared a case with evidence involving donkeys in an animal hospital!

This is Egypt in 2014. It is not the first time, nor will it be the last, where basic rights are politicized

H.A. Hellyer

Accusations aplenty

The report attracted a number of different accusations from Egyptian media. There are too many to count (no, seriously) – but let’s go with a few of the more common ones:

1. Accusations that the report was funded by Qatar. It does not seem to arise that HRW explicitly rejects funding from all governments, indirectly or directly, and says so on its website.

But, they would say that, wouldn’t they?

2. Accusations that the report denies the Rabaa sit-in, dispersed by the Egyptian state last August, was armed to the teeth. As such, it supports the notion that the sit-in was generally akin to the Tahrir Square sit-in of the 18 days in 2011 (which was unarmed).

I had a cursory look at the report – and found after a quick scan that it mentions that there were arms in the sit-in several times. Indeed, it cites the Egyptian state’s own evidence that was provided to the public: which is that the state’s own security sources found 15 guns belonging to protesters in the sit-in. The report then proceeds to make use of an ancient tool that the Arabs call ‘mantiq’ (Westerners call it ‘logic’), to draw the conclusion that if 15 guns were recovered from a sit-in that held around 85,000 people at full capacity, then…

Well, it wasn’t Tahrir Square of 2011 – but it wasn’t exactly Tora Bora in Afghanistan either.

3. Accusations that the report ignored the vile rhetoric and incitement to violence and sectarianism that emanated from the sit-in, and failed to cover the destruction of churches that took place as radical Islamist retaliation for the violent dispersal of the sit-in.

That would be something quite material for the report to leave out in providing the context for the sit-in.

That is, if the report had left out mentioning such things. Except, it catalogued seven different examples, with full references and links to YouTube videos, of some prominent speeches by pro-Mursi figures in the sit-in. (See the links here).

Indeed, the report linked the destruction of the churches to that radical rhetoric, blaming supporters of the Islamic Brotherhood and the organization itself for encouraging that rhetoric. Which, one would think, non-Islamist critics of the report might appreciate?

4. Accusations that the report was written by a pro-Brotherhood organization that doesn’t show the reality of the Islamist group and its faults.

Now, that would be a pity – because it would mean HRW was a partisan organization that took sides in Egyptian politics. There is, indeed, a great deal of evidence to suggest it does exactly that – it takes a side. Of course, the side it seems to take (and I may be wrong here) is the side mentioned in its name: human rights.

That’s why, for example, it criticized the Mursi administration a couple of dozen times during its year in power, and the pro-Mursi camp afterwards. It called on Mursi to end military trials for civilians (he didn’t), to end impunity for sectarian violence (didn’t do that either), attacked Mursi for his extrajudicial decree in November 2012 (ignored that one too), criticized the 2012 constitutions for being mixed on support of human rights (wasn’t too interested), and called on investigating the Brotherhood’s abuse of protesters in December 2012 (that also didn’t happen).

That’s a sample of the criticisms that took place in 2012 alone. HRW criticized the Mursi administration more than a dozen times in the following year, while Mursi was still in office, and then criticized the pro-Mursi camp a number of times after that point.

Consequently, the Brotherhood openly attacked HRW (and a number of other human rights organizations) earlier this year as being “the long arms of Western injustice that strive to eradicate the Islamic identity, discredit Islamist politicians and frustrate their efforts.” If HRW is secretly pro-Brotherhood, it’s not doing a terribly good job at convincing the Brotherhood of that.

5. Finally: HRW has been accused of saying virtually nothing of Israel and its abuses in the occupied Palestinian territories, only focusing on this particular ethnic group (i.e., Arabs).

I need to revert back to this criticism later: there are scores of HRW press releases bitterly censuring and condemning Israel for various actions in the past year alone, as well as a plethora of accusations that HRW is anti-Israeli. It may take some time to wade through this.

It’s a bit strange, one is forced to admit, to be described as having a bias towards the Brotherhood-led ‘Anti-Coup Alliance’ on the one hand, and be (apparently) engaged in a struggle to ‘eradicate the Islamic identity’ and ‘frustrate Islamist politician’s efforts’ on the other. But, after all – this is Egypt in 2014. It is not the first time, nor will it be the last, where basic rights are politicized – and where those who try to account for biases, as opposed to succumbing to them, will be ridiculed or deliberately misrepresented. In such a world, as a friend of mine used to say, a sardonic response may be the only appropriate one.


Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
Top Content Trending