Q&A with Tom Malinowski: Rights abuses in Egypt and Libya

In May, Al-Masry Al-Youm met with Tom Malinowski, Human Rights Watch Washington director, who visited Egypt last month briefly after spending some days in Libya. Drawing on his foreign affairs expertise and his organization’s advocacy work in US government, he spoke about a host of issues with regards to Egypt’s transition and Libya’s on-going conflict.

Al-Masry Al-Youm: Let us go back to 2005, a moment when the Bush administration was relatively more supportive of civil society in Egypt. Do you see its approach, which included a lot of civil society funding, as an effective one to democratic change?

Tom Malinowski: When I ask this question to Egyptians, they say that the targeted foreign pressure [on the ruling government] has helped in the past. During that brief period when the Bush administration was putting pressure on the Mubarak government, some progress was made. It was not decisive progress, but when pressure was sustained, the Egyptian government was at least somewhat responsive. However, I worry a little bit with the enthusiasm to support the revolution now. There is a limit to what an NGO community can absorb and we have to be careful not to give the reactionary forces in the country the excuse to say all these people are tools of the US. It has to be done in a sensitive way. That’s one of the messages we deliver to our State Department. We want them to provide funding independently of the government but they should be sensitive to the danger that too much funding, improperly thought through, could damage the people it initially intended to support.

AMAY: So what would you advise the American administration during Egypt’s transition?

TM: I think there should be a policy of critical support. Obviously, there are very hopeful things that happened in Egypt and it’s the right thing for the US to support the Egyptian government and the military to continue those changes. At the same time, there are clearly powerful interests in Egypt that resist deep reform both in the military and the old Mubarak National Democratic Party establishment. There will be many critical moments in the next few months, after which pressure from the US and other friends of Egypt around the world will be important. For example, we have military detentions and trials and I know that there could be some implication under US law, the Leahy Amendment, whereby the unit that was involved in torturing protesters should be cut off from US assistance. There is no question about that. The reason why the Leahy Amendment is useful is that it requires cutting off assistance to individual units without requiring an end of assistance to the military as a whole. The relationship [between the US and Egypt] is too important to cut military aid altogether right now. But they should single out units implicated in torture of citizens. There is this danger that the military now is assuming the role played by the Interior Ministry and State Security [and Investigations Service] in the past, shielded by the popularity it got for being the savior of the revolution. I know that the US government has talked to the Egyptian military to identify the specific units that have been involved in torturing citizens. I know the Leahy Amendment has been raised in private conversations. I am not sure how far it got, but we are pressing the US government in Washington hard to apply this law, and, more broadly, to address the issue of military detentions. There are active and engaged members in Congress. A number of people have spoken to them about the 9 March incidents, the virginity tests that were very shocking to a lot of people.

AMAY: How hard is it to identify those units?

TM: It’s very hard. In our experience, when people are tortured they don’t pay much attention to what the officers are wearing for example. We know it’s military police. We think that the US has to ask the Egyptian military to identify those units.

AMAY: How easy or difficult has it been in general for you to engage with the military as the interim rulers in your usual work?

TM: It’s very hard. We have not had good access at the senior leadership. In most countries we work in around the world, we tend to have access. We hope that this will change when there is a new elected government and the military steps back. Meanwhile, with exposure and pressure, these problems can be addressed until an elected government can deal with them more systematically.

AMAY: Do you have any concerns about the newly established National Security entity, set to replace the notorious State Security apparatus?

TM: We certainly hope it’s going to be a fundamentally different institution, led by civilians, accountable to parliament, and without emergency powers. Every country has an internal security apparatus, and it’s not shocking that Egypt continues to have one. The most important thing is that this apparatus doesn’t get empowered to violate the rights of the Egyptian people and that it stays accountable to civilian authority.

AMAY: Do you support a truth and reconciliation proposition to resolve the Egyptian people’s conflict with the figures of the toppled regime?

TM: We do want to see accountability for the most serious parts.  A good approach is one that uses criminal accountability for the intellectual authors of the war crimes, the senior people who were ultimately in command and perhaps a broader truth and reconciliation process for the broader range of people who are below that level. There are many models of truth and reconciliation; there is the South African model whereby if you admit to your crimes, you won’t be prosecuted. We have issues with that and I am sure Egyptians do as well. Beyond that, truth and reconciliation can be helpful as the record of what happened should be established so that people know. Opening the files is important in every emerging democracy.

AMAY: What are the things that concern you politically the most in Egypt’s transition then?

TM: The way in which the military is behaving, all those military detentions and trials, the continued abuse in prison and the attempt to control the media.

AMAY: Do you have concerns about religious freedoms in light of continuing sectarian tensions?

TM: There is a controversy we have after the Commission of Religious Freedoms recommended to State Department that Egypt should be downgraded to be listed as a country of particular concern. I don’t think I agree with that recommendation. I know there are religious freedom issues in Egypt but we shouldn’t suggest they are worse now under the transition government than they were under Mubarak. It’s a myth to believe that Mubarak was the protector of the Coptic community. Democracy has an important role to have a broader conversation in Egypt where a tolerant environment can be created, rather than relying on the heavy hand of state to keep people separated. It’s a serious issue that Egypt’s friends have to continue to raise. I am not sure it’s the right time to penalize Egypt in the way that this Commission did and I don’t think that the State Department would do the same. The Commission is a private entity; it’s created by the government but doesn’t speak for it. It doesn’t represent the Obama administration.

AMAY: Moving on to Libya, we were wondering what the no-fly-zone did in terms of affecting the rebels’ sense of need for foreign intervention?

It was never a no-fly zone. The phrase should never be used. Had it been, Benghazi would be in ruins now. The only intervention that made sense from the point of view of protecting Benghazi was what NATO did, namely strikes to stop the heavy tanks and artillery that were moving towards the city. If you are going to use military means to protect civilian populations like in Misrata, you have to strike ground forces that are undertaking the attacks. The mission was always about striking ground forces. Rebel authorities do want arms to be provided at the very least. I still think there is a very strong sentiment around the National Council leaders and the revolutionary youth that they don’t want foreign troops. I think there is a strong disinclination from NATO to provide ground troops. Between people’s sentiment on the ground and the reluctance of NATO, I don’t think this would happen.

AMAY: Do you think the NATO no-drive zone was a success from a humanitarian perspective?

TM: It is rarely reported as a success because we all naturally focus on the places where there’s still terrible violence going on. If the initial purpose of the intervention was to stop the Qadhafi assault on the civilian area of the east, then it was a huge success of course. Eastern Libya is witnessing the birth of civil society, of a new country, which is very inspiring. None of that would have happened if Qadhafi’s forces advanced. Now we still have Misrata and the western mountains which we have little information on. There is significant fighting there. And then there is Tripoli and the area under Qadhafi’s control. People living in those areas are in fear that would continue for sometime. I don’t see a resolution right around the corner.

AMAY: Do we hear of any human rights abuses committed by the rebels?

TM: Some yes, not great or systematic. We have concerns about the treatment of prisoners on the frontline when fighters are immediately captured. We have access to detention facilities. We have been able to speak privately to Qadhafi’s prisoners. When prisoners were just taken, we have reports that they have been slapped or beaten in Misrata. There is an issue with medical care for prisoners. There was one execution that was witnessed by a foreign journalist which we called rebel authorities to investigate. The BBC crew caught some rebel forces laying landmines. We pressed the rebel leaders and they issued a policy that they wouldn’t do it and that they would destroy all landmines in their possession. The rebels are making a sincere effort to do better. They admit their mistakes and it is very refreshing. They know they need the support of the international committee, but I also think it is sincere. Remember that most of rebel leaders are former human rights activists, political prisoners and people who suffered under the Qadhafi regime. They have a strong desire to be the opposite of Qadhafi.

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