22 - 28 August 2002
Issue No. 600
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Recommend this page|
Murder foretoldThe Upper Egyptian vendetta has been with us for centuries. But the Beit Allam massacre should make us look beyond tradition, says Diaa Rashwan*
Upper Egypt, or the sa'id, is the land of the forgotten. It is honoured with frontline coverage only when disaster strikes. At which time, pundits appear on television, flanked by some sa'idis to opine on the peculiarities of the people who inhabit the southern half of the country. Sporadic bouts of public interest in the sa'id, over the past few years, have been associated with extremist violence, sectarian conflict in the village of Al- Kusheh, and the train fire in which hundreds perished a few months ago. Now, public curiosity has turned to Beit Allam.
Once again, pundits are holed up in television and radio studios, to tell us, often inaccurately, what Upper Egypt is all about. The only thing they agree on is that our sa'idis are in trouble, even more so than the rest of the country. Tough living conditions combined with the sa'idi brand of social and moral values have combined to produce the Beit Allam tragedy. This is true, up to a point. But what the pundits miss is the extent to which tradition is to blame, and why violence has flared up so explosively.
The social and moral fabrics of the sa'idis are held together by one common thread, the clan. Allegiance to the clan is paramount. Regardless of your economic condition, educational background, or professional status, the clan is the centre of your obligations. Clans in the sa'id are patriarchal by definition. The patriarch, the starting point of the clan, is likely to be someone who lived a few generations ago, perhaps even a century or two ago, when the last clan split took place. Anyone traced back to the same patriarch is part of the clan. This occasionally excludes mothers and maternal uncles. Although they are part of the family, their clan references may place them with a different patriarch, a different clan. All individuals sharing the same ancestral father, or patriarch, would treat each other as cousins, and would have the same obligations, more or less, toward the clan.
The clan, thus defined, could include hudreds of members. Happy events, such as marriages and minor celebrations, would normally involve the family and the more immediate branch of the clan. But vendettas, the particular brand of tribal justice where a murdered clan member has to be avenged, even years after his killing, are an all-clan affair. Vendettas are the rallying point of the clan. The final cry for unity.
In pursuing a vendetta, all intra-clan rivalries are ignored. The unity of the clan is paramount, for it is the proof of the clan's cohesion and vitality. In vendettas, the inherent ability of the clan to stand together, as a tribal force, a law-enforcing unit, is put to the test. It is then that the clan has to muster its courage and allegiance, on which its very survival, as a social system, depends.
Clans provide the framework within which most social and economic interaction takes place. Marriages, land sales and house building are not decisions to be left to the individual. The entire clan feels affected by the shift of power involved in these transactions. The clan has an opinion over what clans are to be joined to it in marriage, what clans may buy its land, and what clans are permitted to be its neighbours. During skirmishes between members of different clans, the clan always pulls together.
Click to view caption
Clockwise from top: A painting by Zeinab Al- Sajeeni from Al-Ahram arts collection; a man and two children from Beit Allam village; security forces patrolling the village
Any friction between two members of different clans automatically turns into a matter of concern for both clans. The individuals in question are no longer allowed to settle their differences on their own, because the outcome would affect future relations between the two clans. In a sense, the situation turns into a microcosm of international politics. When conflicts escalate into murder, the reprisal becomes a matter of obligation for the entire clan, not just close relatives of the victim.
Vendetta is an entrenched social and moral tradition. Lawless as it may seem to outsiders, it has its intrinsic patterns and guidelines. For starters, vendetta is a common tradition to all sa'idi clans, rich and poor, Muslim and Christian. Vendetta is a defence mechanism for the clan's dignity and status. It is also a territorial affair. If a member of Clan A is murdered by a member of Clan B within the territories of Clan C, both A and C will become allies in the ensuing reprisal. Although C did not lose any of its members, it would feel slighted by the offence against its sovereignty and borders by Clan B. Again, the analogy with international politics applies.
However, only in rare cases has the tradition of vendetta been applied to clashes with security forces. Despite the death of numerous clan members during the phase of extremist violence from 1992-1997, clans never used their allegiances to start a vendetta against the state or its security services. Prior to its renunciation of violence, Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiya did occasionally assume the traditional role of the clan, striking against security services to avenge slain members. However, traditional clans remained, largely, above the extremist foray.
Vendetta has its norms and regulations. One important guideline is that any response to a murder must be proportional. The murder of a clan member is usually avenged by the killing of one, or at most two, of the clan held responsible. This is what makes the Beit Allam massacre quite extraordinary. Also, no women or underage children are to be killed, despite the fact that bereaved women are usually the driving force behind the vendetta tradition. The Beit Allam incident was aberrant in this sense as well, for a 12-year-old boy was killed in the attack. Another trait of vendetta is that the killer should not hide his identity from the victim, and should not kill him from behind or from a hiding place. The victim has to see who killed him and understand that the killing was an act of revenge. This trait was upheld in the Beit Allam case. Also the killers have to be careful not to harm innocent bystanders. In the Beit Allam attack, the killers ordered a taxi driver out of his car before the massacre started. He belonged to a different clan that had nothing to do with the conflict. No collateral damage is allowed.
Vendetta is a common law enforcement mechanism. The clans take the law into their own hands, and they apply a morally questionable brand of collective punishment. The victim is often not the perpetrator of the earlier crime. However, the practice, which predates modern law by many centuries, is strictly defensive. In committing acts of vendetta, clans do not sanction murder, but retribution. And, they regard it as their own business, not that of the state.
Considering the social structure of the sa'id, especially the disparity of wealth and power among various clans, there are reasons for the survival of this tradition, lawless as it is. The weaker clans have a reason to worry that, should they react peaceably to transgressions by stronger clans, the law may not always defend their rights. The clan law is thus called upon to safeguard the delicate balance of power among various sa'idi clans, regardless of the state and its laws.
As life in the sa'id became harsher, clan allegiances have gained in strength. With the worsening of economic and social conditions in the country as a whole, and the state's abandonment of its developmental role, individuals have become more reliant on their clans, and more loyal.
Heightened clan allegiance was obvious during the 2000 parliamentary elections, when clan allegiances became the rallying cry of most candidates. Many educated individuals have opted to return to their "roots" in the sa'id over the past few years, and were soon co-opted back into their clans. The latter, because of the weakness of business and other modern institutional structures, provide the best available framework of social and economic interaction.
The phenomenon of vendetta is not equally entrenched in all parts of the sa'id. Certain parts are especially susceptible to violence. Generally speaking, vendetta is stronger in Assiut, Qena, and parts of Sohag; in areas where families boast of their ancestral Arab origins and are more inclined to stick to tribal practice; in areas where clans of equal power (money, numbers, and arms), are locked into long- running disputes; and in areas distant from the Nile Valley and closer to the desert and mountains. These latter areas are relatively poor, not easily accessible to law enforcement bodies, and more violent in their traditions.
Beit Allam is a small, mountainside, village near Girga, on the west bank of the river. This is where, on 10 August, attackers committed a crime that transcended the realm of vendetta. The attack, for one thing, is a reminder that clan power grows stronger at times of social and economic adversity. Its ferocity, however, should set us thinking. The attackers flouted the age-old norm of vendetta: proportionality. This is the point that the pundits should tell us more about. This is what was particularly troubling about this particular incident.
Unemployment, poverty, and the fragility of institutional and business structures are facts of life in today's sa'id. As such, they are much more worrisome than the vengeful nature of Upper Egyptians. In Beit Allam, the attackers not only massacred their rivals with abandon, they also fled their own village. Their revenge went way beyond the conventional norms of vendetta. By deviating from the older and milder norms of reprisal, the Beit Allam killers have committed an act of despair. It is this despair, not outdated sa'idi traditions, that should worry us.
* The writer, who hails from the Upper Egyptian province of Qena, is managing editor of the annual The State of Religion in Egypt Report, issued by Al- Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
Letter from the Editor
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