By Sondos Asem and Daniel Hilton
22 January 2019
Human Rights Watch says it has been forced to close half its offices in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) due to the security or political risks associated with its work in the region, while the human rights abuses in those countries have only worsened.
At the MENA section launch of the group's 2019 World Report on Tuesday, HRW's regional experts lamented the fact that their organisation could not hold its annual event in any of the cities where it once had regional offices, such as Cairo, Tripoli and Sanaa.
"The Middle East has become closed to civil society," said HRW Middle East and North Africa Director Sarah Leah Whitson in her opening remarks at the event, held at London's Frontline Club.
Many countries in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Morocco, have imposed strict visa restrictions on HRW officials to bar them from entering, Whitson said.
"This means people's stories and experiences aren't getting told," she said.
Other countries, such as Egypt, have banned the work of the rights group altogether, while Israel is currently attempting to expel one of HRW's researchers, based in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah, over allegations he supported the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
Nevertheless, Whitson said her organisation is using different resources to try to document the realities on the ground in the MENA region - a reality she said is shared by journalists and even some government officials.
Egypt: A ‘Full-Fledged Dictatorship’
On Tuesday, HRW named four key stories to watch across the region in the coming year: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen and women's rights.
HRW’s advocacy and communications director, Ahmed Benchemsi, described Egypt as “a full-fledged dictatorship”, pointing to the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi imposing a virtual ban on protests and inaugurating 19 new jails to accommodate a surging number of political prisoners.
Sisi's re-election last year was "a farce", Benchemsi said. A former military general who ousted his predecessor Mohammed Morsi in a coup, the Egyptian president has been accused of pushing out any rival candidates that could mount a viable challenge to his continued rule.
Benchemsi also said the Sisi government is using terrorism as a pretext to stifle opposition, a narrative that he said has been accepted by Egypt's allies abroad.
Meanwhile, the army’s approach in Sinai is creating a "boomerang effect" and stoking discontent that feeds militants affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) group, he said.
The rights group, which has not been allowed into Egypt since 2014, also called for greater attention to be paid to the case of Morsi, who has been held in solitary confinement for six years and banned from regular family visits.
Whitson urged Egypt to end the "inhumane conditions" of his detention. "The fact that he has been unnecessarily and unlawfully held in extreme solitary confinement strengthens the case that the charges against him are politically motivated," she told Middle East Eye.
Benchemsi said he will attend meetings with diplomats in Paris ahead of a scheduled visit to Egypt next week by French President Emmanual Macron. He said he plans to urge the French government to make its economic, security and military support for the Egyptian government conditional on human rights.
Despite a largely bleak prognosis for the year ahead, HRW's experts outlined a positive way ahead in some parts of the region.
Kristine Beckerle, a Yemen researcher, said although the country has "all but collapsed", two critical steps could improve the situation there: the release of detainees and restrictions on weapons sales to the Gulf states fighting in the ongoing war.
Saudi-led forces launched a military operation, with the support of the United Arab Emirates, in Yemen in 2015 to root out the country's Houthi rebels and restore ousted President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi to power.
Beckerle said Saudi Arabia, the UAE and their allies take notice when Western countries refuse them arms.
“There are incredible people in Yemen pushing for justice, peace and change,” she said.
“The question is, when will states choose to stand beside them, rather than continue to arm those fighting with more bombs and bullets?”
Also on a more positive note, Rothna Begum, a senior researcher at HRW's women rights division, said last year saw minor victories for women in the region, such as Saudi Arabia lifting a ban on women driving and Tunisia’s proposal to grant equal inheritance to women.
However, Begum and others tempered these positive developments by underlining the fact that many activists who promoted Saudi women's right to drive have been arrested, while some have also reportedly been tortured and subjected to sexual abuse in detention.
Saudi Arabia continues to uphold a draconian male guardianship system which forces women to get permission from a male guardian to make critical decisions, such as who they can marry, or where and when they can travel.
The system has left "the vast majority of Saudi women trapped" in their own country, Begum said.