Al-Ahram Weekly Online   22 - 28 March 2012
Issue No. 1090
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Cut his hand off

An Islamic law proposed to counter a recent unprecedented wave of crime is highly controversial, Gihan Shahine samples the debate

A highly controversial draft law proposed by MP Adel Azzazi, who represents the ultra- conservative Salafist Nour Party, and which suggests the application of haraba Islamic law to help deter theft and murder, has been the issue of a heated debate over the past week. The very fact that the law was presented by an Islamist and in an Islamic context has again deepened the seemingly never-ending split between Egypt's already conflicting powers of secularists vis-à-vis Islamists.

The haraba, according to Azzazi's proposed bill, implies imposing penalties including execution in cases of murder and the cutting off of one arm and one leg from opposite sides of the body of a thug who proves guilty of robbery and forcibly taking of property. If the robbery involves murder then the accused will receive a death penalty or be crucified, to be left for the judge to decide. Those who intimidate citizens, according to the bill, should also face imprisonment that will last until those found guilty declare repentance.

The penalties, according to the bill, will only be applied to adults who are mentally sound and are either directly or indirectly involved in the crimes.

The bill allows police to use force against thugs after warning them. The police should not use force if the person surrenders, but the bill also entitles policemen to shoot criminals dead if they try to flee or fight back.

In all cases, the stolen property should be returned to their owners or put in the state's treasury if the owner remains anonymous. The families of the victims of murder will be allowed various forms of retribution, receiving compensation, and granting amnesty; the bill says.

The proposal received the blessing of many religious figures belonging to Egypt's official and oldest seat of Sunni teaching, Al-Azhar and its affiliated Islamic Research Academy (IRA), as well as leaders of Salafi and Sufi movements on the grounds that the bill provides an effective deterrent to the recent wave of crimes that has been gripping the country.

Brotherhood members of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), however, were divided on the draft law while secularists, mostly belonging to the leftist Tagammu Party and the secularist Wafd Party, as well as Copts opened fire on the proposal which they described as "a setback and a retreat to the Middle Ages", "a clampdown on human rights", and as a the first step towards the establishment of "a theocracy".

Many legal experts and sociologists argue that although strengthened penalties are needed to curb the recent spate of crimes, the problem may still remain in the absence of the rule of law and not in the law itself.

For his part, Azzazi told parliament that the haraba law is "God's law and is not optional", insisting that "the current penalties are not deterrent enough." The Salafi MP later explained to the press that the draft law is extremely timely now with the proliferation of crime and recurrent intimidation of the people.

An unprecedented crime spree has been gripping the country since the 25 January Revolution when the police disappeared from the streets after three days of deadly clashes with protesters in Cairo and elsewhere. By 28 January of that year unprecedented jail breakouts allowed thousands of prisoners to escape while hundreds of firearms were stolen from prisons and police stations.

Today, armed robberies, car thefts, murder and a string of bank robberies and kidnappings are surging. In the absence of the rule of law, and where culprits go mainly unpunished, crimes are being blatantly committed in broad daylight and busy areas.

The reasons behind this wave, however, remain largely unclear and thus it is questionable whether the problem is in the laws or in their application. It also remains controversial from a religious point of view whether the haraba should be applied to a society suffering the double onslaught of poverty and unemployment.

Al-Azhar scholars were quick to express support for the law which they said is grounded in Islamic Sharia law and as such is applicable to all times and places.

Abdel-Dayem Nosseir, the consultant of Al-Azhar's Grand Imam Ahmed El-Tayeb, provided his religious opinion on the proposed draft saying that the nature of the crimes that have been recently plaguing the country deserve the application of severe penalties as those stipulated in the haraba.

Mohamed Raafat Othman, a member in Al-Azhar's Islamic Research Academy, joined forces with Nosseir, saying that the penalties stipulated by Islamic Sharia law will provide the needed deterrence to the recent wave of crimes, which is "threatening the security of a whole nation, even affecting the mental performance and attitudes of the people."

Parliament members belonging to the FJP, however, were divided on the issue with many, like Brotherhood MP Ahmed Gad, arguing that Egypt already has an "arsenal of penal laws that can be adequate if properly applied."

Former chair of the state council, Mohamed Hamed El-Gamal, told Al-Ahram Weekly that current penal laws already impose a death penalty on theft that includes murder or severe injury, and that such a law can be deterrent enough if applied.

"The problem, however, is not in the law, but in the fact that for some unknown reasons the police have withdrawn their forces from the streets and are reluctant to send organised forces to clamp down on thugs," El-Gamal told the Weekly. "In the absence of police and the presence of a weak government, people are trying to improvise solutions to provide this extreme case of insecurity."

For El-Gamal, however, haraba is not the proper solution at the moment. "Cutting the hands and legs of thieves cannot be applied in a society where almost half of the population is living in poverty and unemployment," El-Gamal explained, adding that "caliphate Omar Ibn El-Khattab stopped the application of that penalty on thieves during the year of famine."

Instead, El-Gamal insisted that a comprehensive plan to maintain security in the streets should be designed and applied.

But that may remain a remote possibility as long as counter-revolutionary forces are trying to spread chaos and fear in order to stigmatise the revolution and revolutionists. Those forces, according to prominent sociologist Samir Naim, are "the main culprits of the current wave of crimes and not the law.

"Remnants of the former regime and their businessmen beneficiaries are sending thugs to intimidate the people while the military council and the police force are leaving this state of chaos to proliferate so that people would be indulged in an intense emotional state that would impede their rational and critical thinking and make them accept whatever is said to them," Naim told the Weekly. Policemen, according to Naim, "were ordered by their commanders not to interfere or provide security". "How can you put such power of killing and cutting people's hands in the hands of an already corrupt police?" Naim exclaimed.

Naim insists the severe penalties like cutting hands and legs as well as the death penalties included in the haraba law cannot be applied in modern times because they cannot be reversed in case the defendant is later proven innocent.

"This law [ haraba ] was applied at the time of the Prophet Mohamed [PBUH] when injustice was not even a possibility," Naim said. "Today, however, the whole world is suffering from corruption and thus such harsh penalties are unacceptable."

Former dean of Ain Shams University's Faculty of Law, Hamdi Abdel-Rahman, however, insisted that existing laws are insufficient since they take a long time in court and that strengthening penalties and applying them would be more effective in frightening criminals. That said, Abdel-Rahman suggests that the laws should not be discussed in a religious context to avoid controversy over their application on non-Muslims.

Copts are already up in arms over the new proposal insisting that it represents the first step towards the establishment of a theocracy. The Orthodox Church did not comment, but Coptic activists like Sherif Doss vowed they would not allow such a law to pass. "It is an unacceptable setback in Egyptian history," Doss grumbled.

In the same vein, secularists opened fire on the new bill on the grounds that it will take Egypt back to the Middle Ages, describing it as a serious blow to democracy and the establishment of a civil state.

Prominent columnist and former chief editor of the opposition daily Al-Wafd Abbas El-Tarabili explained that the law would not have triggered such a fuss had it not been presented in the name of haraba or by an ultra- conservative Salafi MP. El-Tarabili thus suggested in a recent column published in the Al-Wafd that a similar law could be designed, imposing the death penalty and life imprisonment but in a different context, away from the name of haraba or the cutting off of hands and legs.

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