Egypt, where human rights are a 'threat' to security

Egypt, where human rights are a 'threat' to security
Comment: A lawsuit to expel Human Rights Watch is latest move by Sisi supporters to depict any criticism as sympathetic to 'terrorists' and a national threat, says Heather McRobie.
4 min read
26 Aug, 2015
Human Rights Watch has been working under immense pressure in Egypt (Getty)
File this under "obvious statements you never thought would need to be written", but Human Rights Watch does not support the Muslim Brotherhood.

The US-based group has been explicitly critical of the human rights record of Egypt's Brotherhood and sympathetic political parties.

It condemned the continued use of military trials for civilians and persecution of journalists during Mohamed Morsi's presidency in 2012 and 2013.

Yet in another perversely inventive use of Egypt's judicial system, HRW is now being sued in a lawsuit that accuses it of "supporting the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood".
The lawsuit demands the group's expulsion from the country - a demand that neglects the fact that HRW does not maintain full-time staff in the country.

According to the news website, Mada Masr, the lawsuit will be heard at the Cairo Court of Urgent Matters on 13 September. In Egypt today, it seems you can be vocally critical of the Brotherhood and still be accused of support.

The case, brought on behalf of the "Egyptian Union of Human Rights", is reminiscent of the Mubarak era, in which Gongos - non-government bodies actually organised by the government - use the language of "human rights" to lobby for their master and the institutional status quo.

It is also part of a broader cultural climate, in which talk of "security" and the "clampdown on terrorism" is harnessed to stifle anyone critical of the current government.

HRW has already been driven out of Egypt

Even if anyone truly believes that HRW is a threat to security in Egypt, the lawsuit comes too late - the organisation has already been driven out of the country.

In August 2014, the group's executive director, Kenneth Roth, and its Middle East and North Africa director, Sarah Leah Whitson, were held at Cairo airport for 12 hours and then denied entry for "security reasons" after they flew to the country to present their report, All According to Plan.

It was a catalogue of the massacres and human rights abuses committed during the summer of 2013, including the "clearing" of Rabaa square and elsewhere by the army on 14 and 15 August.

It is difficult not to read both the refusal of entry of HRW staff in 2014 and this year's lawsuit as being, at heart, an attempt to silence anyone who dares discuss Rabaa and the other mass killings of pro-Morsi supporters that paved the way for Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's grip on power.

The attempt in pro-Sisi quarters to depict anyone who acknowledges the human rights abuses of Rabaa as "Islamist" has become almost comical.

Public figures such as Mona Eltawahawy - a feminist, secular writer who adamantly condemns political Islam and has been vociferously opposed to the Brotherhood - said on Twitter on the second anniversary of the Rabaa massacre earlier this month that demanding justice wasn't about supporting this or that political view, it was about being pro-justice.

Yet labelling political enemies as "threats to national security" is still the most convenient language for a regime dependent on ultranationalism. 

Civil society under Sisi

HRW isn't the only human rights organisation that has found itself under attack in the Sisi era in Egypt. In January, Sisi issued an ultimatum after resuscitating a Mubarak-era law that forced NGOs to re-register or potentially face prosecution, which many NGOs considered to be restrictive of their ability to work. 

Human rights groups faced difficult choices. The respected Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights chose to stay and see whether it could continue to function under the regulations.

The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, which had methodically documented the human rights abuses of the Mubarak era, chose instead to move to Tunisia.

Civil society today can hardly carve out the space to breathe in Egypt. The 2014 anti-protest law curbed freedom of assembly, and the anti-terrorism law passed this month allows the government to "fine" journalists for reports not in line with official government statements.

The Sisi-era outlawing of the April 6 youth movement, the organisation that lead the 2011 revolution that overthrew Mubarak, sent a clear message that it is not only those sympathetic to the Brotherhood who are under attack, but also those involved in the liberal, secular Third Square movement. 

HRW is just the latest organisation to be attacked for not unequivocally praising the Sisi government. One by one - across the political spectrum - critical voices are being driven out or silenced.

Heather McRobie is a journalist at openDemocracy. She has written for publications including the Guardian, New Statesman, Foreign Policy.

Her book on freedom of literary expression and hate speech in literature, Literary Freedom, was published in 2013. Follow her on Twitter: @heathermcrobie

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.