A Democratic Exception
Kenneth Roth, the chief executive of Human Rights Watch (HRW), probably wished he had more to smile about when he arrived in Cairo over the weekend.
Given it was the first time his organization had ever delivered its annual report from the Egyptian capital, there was a small reason to be cheerful.
But what Mr Roth had to say about the state of human rights in the region – not to mention the complicity of the international community in its dealings with the Arab countries – made for rather sombre contemplation.
In a sweeping statement in front of an audience of journalists in Cairo’s Press Syndicate, Mr Roth bemoaned the persistence of “Arab exceptionalism” towards human rights – a reference to the decades-old legacy of tyranny and repression which has characterized the Middle East for so long.
Yet Mr Roth also chastised the West for its complicity in this state of affairs, and accused the global powers of nurturing a “tendency to treat the Arab people as if they are something to be feared.”
In the Middle East, he said, The West seemed content to tolerate autocrats “so long as they in turn supported Western interests”.
He added: “The West looked at the strong men in the Arab world to guarantee stability.”
Yet it wasn’t only the West which was the target of Mr Roth’s opprobrium. Brazil, India and South Africa were also criticized for their stance over Syria at the United Nations Security Council, refusing to countenance action against president Bashar Al-Assad despite his bloody crackdown on protesters.
According to the HRW chief, it “would have been very difficult for Russia and China” to oppose action had it not been for the recalcitrance of the three southern hemisphere nations, all of whom had temporary seats at the council throughout last year.
Turning to the Egyptian uprising, Mr Roth reflected the concerns of many activists Egypt by noting how the insurrection had “taken a very disturbing turn” in recent months.
“The Egyptian military seems at this point determined to carve out an exception to democratic rule for its area of power and influence,” he said, adding that the ruling Military Council does “not seem to understand” that democracy means more than simply having elections.
Just before Christmas, the ruling generals provoked alarm among many Egyptians when security forces raided numerous NGOs on the basis that the organizations targeted had received foreign funding.
Mr Roth noted how richly ironic it was that a military apparatus, which for decades has received billions of dollars in subsidies from the United States, could be moved to clamp down on international organisations on this basis.
And in the same week that the new Egyptian parliament was ushered in, he welcomed the political programme which has been espoused by the triumphant Muslim Brotherhood – though cautioned that there was a long road ahead.
“The Muslim Brotherhood is most interested in traditional freedoms,” he said. “But it is very difficult to have secure political freedoms if you don’t at the same time respect religious freedoms and women’s rights.”