'Sisi is directing the most severe repression in Egypt's modern history': An interview with Kenneth Roth, director of Human Rights Watch

10 min read
28 January, 2022

In an exclusive interview with Al-Araby Al-Jadeed Newspaper (The New Arab’s sister Arabic site), Human Rights Watch's (HRW) Kenneth Roth discusses the recently published 32nd annual report on human rights violations across the world in 2021, and the implications of the findings for the Middle East and North Africa. 

Ibtisam Azem, Al-Araby al-Jadeed’s senior correspondent at the UN in New York, interviewed the Executive Director of HRW, Kenneth Roth.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.


Ibtisam Azem: You say autocratic regimes around the world face many challenges, but the prevailing belief is that they are in ascendency and democracy is in decline. Could you explain?

Kenneth Roth: The conventional wisdom says that autocracy is in the ascendency and democracy is in decline. But in fact, they're facing a very difficult moment. The most visible manifestation of that is seeing these big and public demonstrations in a whole range of countries from Thailand, to Myanmar, Russia, Belarus, Sudan, Uganda, Cuba, Nicaragua, really all over the world, when people have the opportunity, they stand for democracy. And we never see, or quite rarely, demonstrations in support of autocrats.  

The other big development over the last year was that in a number of countries where there's an autocratically inclined ruler, but they still commit reasonable elections, we see these coalitions banding together. It is coalitional parties from left to right, it's a broad spectrum, they have little in common other than their interest in ousting the autocrat.

And we saw it in the last year, they succeeded in getting rid of Czech Prime Minister Babis and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. And we saw this happening in the US and the election of Joe Biden. It was very few people's first choice but was nevertheless the consensus candidate to oppose Trump. So, what we're seeing is a hostile environment for autocrats.

 "The conventional wisdom says that autocracy is in the ascendency and democracy is in decline. But in fact, they're facing a very difficult moment. The most visible manifestation of that is seeing these big and public demonstrations in a whole range of countries"

I.A.: 20 years ago, Guantanamo Bay was opened. There are still people there, most of the more than 800 detainees who were there were never charged and there are no clear plans to close it.

K.R.: Guantanamo continues to be an enormous stain on the reputation of the US government. It's been 20 years, there are still 39 people being detained there. Many of them, the majority, are being held without having ever been charged. There is no pretence that they're going to get a fair trial. They're just being held.

It is getting ridiculous. If the US government had been interested in justice, they would have brought people to a regular court in the United States, charged them with a crime, found them guilty or not.

But it's ridiculous, they created these military conditions, which were makeshift tribunals, the whole point was to try to hide the torture, to create a tribunal where it was more difficult for the suspect to raise the torture that most of them had been subjected to.

So, it had a nefarious purpose to begin with. It's time to shut the facility down and either charge the suspects before a regular court or let them go. The idea that these aging men pose a security threat is absurd.

I.A.: How worried are you about American democracy, not only because of what happened on January 6th last year, but also because of US Republican members of congress refusing to certify the election result?

K.R.: I think we have to recognise that democracy is in jeopardy in the United States. What happened a year ago, January 6, was a kind of a warning sign. But we have to recognize that it was still an amateurish effort.

Trump didn't want to recognise his loss in the 2020 elections, he sort of sent a mob to Capitol Hill, he tried telephoning a few state officials and asked them to reverse the verdict of the voters, but it was all kind of ad-hoc haphazard. The fear is that Trump has learned from that and is now pursuing a much more sophisticated effort to try to guarantee his victory in 2024 without regard to what the voters want. So far, people have been focussing mainly on voter suppression.

There has been an active effort to make voting more difficult in swing states with the idea of disenfranchising particular racial and ethnic minorities, who are seen as more likely to vote democratic. That in itself is a problem, but the republicans are going a step further.

What Trump is trying to do now, is to replace those non-partisan, independent and neutral observers with partisan officials, who in the next election, in 2024, would just say that Trump won regardless, or they would say, "Oh it’s too close to call, we don’t really know and you better just kick it off to the politicians to decide". That's the fear and that's a way to steal the elections, it’s a way to undermine democracy.

This is an urgent issue that really needs to be addressed. It is difficult because the US congress is stymied and closely divided, and the republicans are blocking efforts to prevent this frontal attack on democracy.


I.A.: Joe Biden has repeatedly stated his intention to tie US foreign policy to human rights issues. However, the reality appears to fly in the face of this, especially when it comes to his allies like Egypt, Israel, the Saudi-led coalition. How do you view his foreign policy and stance on human rights?

K.R.: The good news is that Biden isn't Trump. You know, Trump embraced every friendly autocrat under the sun, and he stood for the antithesis of respect of human rights. Trump also attacked global institutions.

Biden has changed much of that he reengaged with the World Health Organisation, he re-joined the Paris Climate Accords, he's re-joined the UN Human Rights Council, he's ended the sanctions against the International Criminal Court prosecutor.

This is all great, but Biden promised us more, he said that his foreign policy would have human rights at the core. That these will be central principles guiding him and apart from China, where there has really been a significant shift, it's hard to distinguish Biden's foreign policy from traditional US foreign policy – where there are enormous exceptions from the promotion of human rights.

If you look at Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Israel all of these governments, despite severe repression, are continued to be sold arms, handed military assistance, treated as friendly allies, despite their severe human rights records. Biden has not made significant efforts to change that.

Despite promises to place human rights at the centre of his foreign policy, the Biden administration has continued to make exceptions for repressive regimes across the region. [Getty]

I.A.: How do you view the human rights situation in Egypt and the role that the EU and US are playing with the Egyptian regime?

K.R.: President Sisi in Egypt is directing the most severe repression in Egypt's modern history. This makes Hosni Mubarak look like a liberal. Under Mubarak there was room for human rights groups to function, there was an independent media.

I personally held many press conferences in Egypt. All of that is gone. There are tens of thousands of political prisoners, widespread torture, summary executions in North Sinai, and independent voices have been utterly silenced.

To the West, Sisi says, "I'm a source of security, I'm a source of stability, I help fight terrorism, I help curtail migration". And because he makes those appeals major Western governments continue to back him.

The US government continues to send him massive amounts of military assistance and the French government still sells him massive amounts of arms. This is outrageous. They are simply underwriting oppression, underwriting severe crimes and it's also short sighted. Because it is not stability. In the long term it's just a recipe for trouble.

It's deeply disappointing both the severity of the repression in Egypt but also the weakness of the Western response. Even at the UN Human Rights Council. There have been joint statements condemning the human rights violations but there has been no formal resolution condemning the oppression even though there should be.

"President Sisi in Egypt is directing the most severe repression in Egypt's modern history. This makes Hosni Mubarak look like a liberal"

I.A.: Last year Israel designated 6 Palestinian civil and human rights organisations as terrorist organisations. There has been no real pushback from the EU, the US, or even the UN. How dangerous is this, not only within the context of Israel and Palestine, but for human rights in the Middle East and around the world?

K.R.: The step taken by the Israeli government is very dangerous for human rights. These are six leading Palestinian civil society groups, including Al-Haq, which is a highly respected human rights organisation and a close ally of HRW. And to claim these groups are terrorist, on the basis of no evidence.

They claim they have somebody in custody, who didn't work of any of the 6 organizations and who knows under which pressure, said that they were related to the PLFP - this was no evidence. On the base of that, the Israeli government jumped at the opportunity to call them all terrorists.

The next thing they could do is to prohibit them and shut them down to prohibit their funding. So, this is a very dangerous step. This is understandable from the Israeli government's perspective. They are running apartheid in the occupied territories, they don't want groups there to document what's going on and to report to the world that this is apartheid.

So, they're trying to silence the messenger rather than changing their conduct. This is a horrible strategy. It's one that I hope Western governments see through and firmly denounce. But you are right the response so far has been tepid.

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I.A.: UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres was re-elected last year to serve a second term of another five years, which began this year. How do you evaluate his performance and the stances he's taken on human rights violations, especially with powerful countries?

K.R.: During his first term his sense of promoting human rights was to make big, broad, vague statements, "I favour women’s rights", but he wouldn't mention any country, he would never criticise anybody. So, as a result nobody felt any heat and his statement didn't put pressure on anyone in particular.

He's recently mentioned Ethiopia, Afghanistan, and Myanmar – he's taking on some of the easier cases. But, the big test for him still is he refuses to criticise the Chinese government for its crimes against humanity committed against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang – and this is one of the most severe abuses in the world today and the Secretary General says nothing.

To make it worse, there are an increasing number of governments engaging in a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics, that are coming up next month. Guterres, I don't know why, decided to go to the Olympics despite the diplomatic boycott and help the Chinese government to sport wash its repression. The real question is then if he is going to go, what are you going to do Mr. Guterres to spotlight the Chinese government's repression?

I think back to Ban Ki Moon, the prior Secretary General. Ban Ki Moon was not seen as a strong, outspoken secretary general, but even Ban Ki Moon, at the time of the Sochi Olympics, publicly was outspoken in criticising Putin for his repression of LGBT rights in Russia.

If Ban Ki Moon can do that, why can't Antonio Guterres speak about the severe persecution in Xinjiang despite China's power? So, this is a real test for his moral backbone and his human rights credibility.

Kenneth Roth is the executive director of Human Rights Watch, one of the world's leading international human rights organizations, which operates in more than 90 countries. 

Ibtisam Azem is a Palestinian novelist and journalist. Her latest novel “The Book of Disappearance” was translated into English and published by Syracuse University Press in the US.