MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
So hundreds killed in the streets, dozens of detainees killed in police custody, also, vigilante squads attacking people at checkpoints, churches torched and looted. These are some of the abuses Egyptian human rights groups are investigating as that country goes through its latest upheaval.
To talk about that, I'm joined from Cairo by Heba Morayef. She's the Egypt director of Human Rights Watch. Welcome to the program.
HEBA MORAYEF: Thank you for having me.
BLOCK: And, Heba, how would you characterize the kinds of abuses that you're documenting right now?
MORAYEF: Well, what we've seen in the last five weeks is probably the worst bloodshed Egypt has ever really witnessed. It outflanks what we saw in January 2011. We knew that the authorities had been threatening to disperse the two major Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins for weeks, and there had been discussions about how they would do it, promises that it would be gradual. But I don't think any of us expected it to be this bloody, just looking at the death toll in Rabaa, one of the biggest Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins, which we counted at least 377 people killed. But I think the actual death toll will probably be over 500 once all of the bodies in the morgues are processed. That makes it the single most deadly incident Egypt's ever seen.
BLOCK: You know, I saw a tweet from the Muslim Brotherhood who said it's 2010 all over again, talking about going back to the days of the Mubarak regime. Is that how it seems to you, that this is a return to past practices?
MORAYEF: I'm actually afraid that this may not be a return to 2010, but rather a return to the 1990s in Egypt because in 2010, or at least the first half of 2010 up until November, the Muslim Brotherhood controlled 23 percent of Parliament. They were a banned group, but they could operate politically, hold press conferences, run as individual candidates in elections.
I think, right now, the people in charge of Egypt are actually taking Egypt back to the 1990s where there was an attempt to crush political Islam, to round up and arrest and detain under the emergency law tens of thousands of Islamists and to use force in an unrestrained way to break political Islam. And I think it's that kind of thinking that motivated the forcible dispersal of the sit-ins.
BLOCK: Your latest report focuses on the violence against the Coptic Christian community in Egypt who are being targeted by Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters. Why have they become the focus of these attacks?
MORAYEF: I think there are several problems to do with the churches. First of all, for many weeks, we heard Muslim Brotherhood members getting up on the two stages of the sit-ins and blaming the Christians for Sisi deposing President Morsi, saying that the Christians had made the coup happen. And so it's not surprising that we then saw all of these attacks on churches around the country, particularly in areas of upper Egypt where there's been a history of sectarian violence.
But I think the other question here is what the state was doing because these attacks were entirely predictable. And in all of the cases of the 42 churches where we documented attacks, neither the police nor the military provided any protection for the churches against the attack, and I think that is a key question here.
BLOCK: Ms. Morayef, do you see a path forward where the human rights situation in Egypt improves, that there's a way out from where you are right now?
MORAYEF: I think the only way we can prevent Egypt from heading into a phase where we will only see more killings, more arbitrary arrests and a closing of political space is if somebody in government recognized that they went too far last week, that that kind of massacre that we saw last week cannot go unpunished. And only if they choose to return to a rule of law framework, instead of justifying abuses in the name of terrorism, can Egypt perhaps recover from the violence of the last few weeks.
BLOCK: That's Heba Morayef. She's Egypt director for Human Rights Watch and joined us from Cairo. Ms. Morayef, thanks so much.
MORAYEF: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.