Yesterday I sat down in my office with Heba Morayef, a researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW) who is based in Cairo. HRW has had its fair share of controversy, particularly when it comes to the Middle East. It has even been accused by one of its founders and long-time chairmen, of focusing far more on Israel’s violations of international law than on the gross human rights abuses of the dictatorial regimes in the region. But despite claims against it of imperfect and sometimes biased research, HRW plays a critically important role of shining a spotlight on human rights abuses around the world.
Human Rights Watch started in 1978 as Helsinki Watch to publicize human rights abuses behind the Iron Curtain and monitor compliance with the 1975 Helsinki Accords. Funded and even initially staffed by the Ford Foundation, Helsinki Watch lobbied Western governments to address human rights abuses in various international forums and also encouraged media coverage of human rights issues. It played an important role in fostering the popular dissent that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the democratic transitions that followed. During the 1980s, it spawned other regional “watch” groups – including for the Americas, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. After the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, all of these groups consolidated into Human Rights Watch.
Today, Human Rights Watch has staff on the ground around the world, shaming governments with their research and advocacy. In Egypt, Heba Morayef has been following events closely, sounding important alarms about continued human rights abuses by the military leadership. “We are not seeing a transition to a respect for the rule of law,” worries Morayef. Since February, the military has tried and sentenced more than 5,600 civilians in military courts, many of them protesters arrested in Tahrir Square. “The vast majority of the cases involves civilian crimes, like theft, and should go to civilian courts,” argues Morayef. Her concern is that the continued disempowerment of the judiciary will undermine the post-Mubarak transition.
As worrying as the military trials is the government’s censorship of the media. “There are clear red lines when it comes to exposing military abuse and torture,” says Morayef. Other branches of the government are fair game, but the military is off-limits. Morayef draws attention to the high-profile case of blogger Maikel Nabil, who was sentenced last month to three years in prison for “insulting the military establishment.” Military officials arrested the twenty-five year-old activist at his home in Cairo on March 28. Two weeks later, General Ismail Etman, head of the Morale Affairs Directorate of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the military group running the country, accused Nabil on live television of using “inappropriate language” and specifically denounced his calls for an end to military conscription, saying such talk has a negative effect on the youth of Egypt.
As I wrote in a CNN piece in March, Egypt is in a tug of war for its future. On one side of this divide stand the largely secular, leftist, urban, youthful leaders of the Tahrir Square protests; on the other stand the old political elements of the Muslim Brotherhood and the military-backed remnants of the National Democratic Party (NDP), as well as large swaths of conservative rural voters. The playing field is definitely not level between these two sides, with secular youth groups already quite marginalized. During this tenuous period of transition, especially in the run-up to the parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for later this year, Human Rights Watch and other civil society groups play a critical role in nudging the powerful at least to play by their own rules.