Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1251, (18 - 24 June 2015)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1251, (18 - 24 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

‘A parallel judicial system’

A new study warns customary reconciliation sessions that purport to resolve sectarian disputes often result in making the problem worse. Khaled Dawoud reports

Al-Ahram Weekly

The decision by a “customary reconciliation council” meeting in the village of Kafr Darwish in Beni Sweif in early June to expel five Coptic families from their homes because a relative had insulted Islam on his Facebook page led to an outcry from human rights organisations, political parties, public figures and Coptic activists.

The man who allegedly posted the message lived in Jordan. His relatives in Egypt had nothing to do with the posting. Yet the elders in Kafr Darwish convinced the local police to accept the settlement despite it being a clear violation of the constitution and the law.

The angry reaction forced the authorities in Beni Sweif to reconsider the decision of the “customary council”. A second meeting was held which resulted in the five families returning to their homes two weeks later amid official celebrations and hugs all round.

It was a rare example of a happy ending.

A study by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), released on 10 June, examines 45 cases in which sectarian disputes were solved through “customary council” meetings. The study, which covers the four years between the 25 January, 2011 Revolution and the end of 2014, concludes that these traditional instruments — customary councils usually include elders and influential figures from the local community — have strayed from their original purpose, heightened sectarian violence and became a means to evade law enforcement.

Whose Customs? The Role of Customary Reconciliation in Sectarian Disputes and State Responsibility is the work of Ishak Ibrahim, director of the Freedom of Religion and Belief Programme at EIPR.

The period immediately following the 25 January Revolution held out the promise of guarantees being enforced to protect freedom of religion and belief and other related rights and liberties and a break with practices that had become entrenched in the three decades of Hosni Mubarak’s rule, says Ibrahim. Yet instead what we saw was a litany of “failure on the part of law enforcement and security authorities, and at times a total inability to perform their legally and constitutionally mandated missions”.

Ibrahim stresses the 45 cases examined in the study are a sample and do not cover all incidents resolved through customary reconciliation. It does not, for example, address settlements reached locally in the wake of the widespread sectarian attacks that followed the dispersal of the pro-Morsi sit-ins in Rabaa Al-Adaweya and Al-Nahda Square.

Incidents like that in Kafr Darwish, where the customary council ordered the forced expulsion of the five families, suggest there is “no change in the state’s support for solutions that overall foster religious discrimination and, in contrast to official claims, heighten sectarian violence.”

The study identified six categories of dispute over which customary reconciliation councils are convened: conflicts concerning worship and the public exercise of religious rites; conflicts over consensual romantic and sexual relationships; disputes related to freedom of expression in religious matters; conflicts related to local feuds; conflicts related to political differences and disputes related to crimes, such as abduction or extortion, resulting from Copts’ generally weaker position.

In many cases, and regardless of the reasons behind sectarian disputes, the local Muslim majority usually targets churches and Coptic property, holding the entire Christian community responsible for individual violations, says the study.

Whose Customs convincingly argues that the inability of state institutions to protect social peace and the lives and property of citizens has led some citizens to resort to customary reconciliation instruments to resolve disputes they fear could spin out of control given the extent of sectarian and religious tensions.

The EIPR found the security apparatus plays a variable role in these customary sessions, ranging from nominal participation and convening the sessions in police stations or security directorates to full sponsorship of the session and active participation in setting the terms of reconciliation.

Some sessions resulted in unlawful decisions that clearly violate the rights of the weaker party. In a dispute that occurred in late November 2013 following a fight between Muslims and Christians from neighbouring villages in Minya a local customary council ordered that Coptic residents of one village, Nazlet Ebeid, should be confined to their homes for 15 days. In February 2014, following a dispute in the Matariya area of Cairo between a Muslim and a Christian family in which one Muslim was killed, a customary council ruled not only that 63 members of the Christian family be evicted from their homes but that they pay the family of the dead men an amount worth 100 camels and five cows, and additional LE1 million, and donate a piece of land for the building of a mosque.

The security services, says Ibrahim, who always attends customary councils in one form or another, have often played a negative role when it comes to settling disputes over the construction of churches.

“In many cases Christian citizens are forced to suspend church renovations or expansions or the inauguration of mass in new churches pending security approval, which never comes.”

In other cases security leaders and, when the army was responsible for maintaining security after the January 2011 revolution, military commanders, used Salafi leaders to persuade assailants to halt their attacks in exchange for non-prosecution.

The study also examines the role of the Public Prosecution. A majority of cases of attacks on Coptic property do not result in prosecutions, it discovered, whereas in cases when the attackers are Christian the suspects are invariably taken into custody. The prosecutor’s office, says the study, often uses customary reconciliation as grounds to suspend criminal prosecution in violation of the Code of Criminal Procedure which details the crimes for which reconciliation is appropriate and lists others that should be subject to criminal prosecution.

According to the study, reconciliation sessions in cases of sectarian disputes have evolved into a separate customary judicial system that operates differently according to the city and region. When this is combined with the Public Prosecution’s readiness to accept the terms of these sessions, even when they violate the law, and subsequently close investigations it becomes clear that the reconciliations undermine the basic right to a fair trial, enshrined in international law and the Egyptian constitution.

The study stressed that the EIPR is not opposed to social mechanisms on either a local or national level that help defuse sectarian disputes and attacks.

“Such interventions are important and necessary. But  these instruments should supplement the various legal actions citizens are entitled to take. It is the state’s duty to ensure these legal actions are enforced and accessible and protect those who turn to them from any infringement of their other rights,” says Ibrahim.

The study concedes that in many cases reconciliation sessions helped defuse sectarian tensions and prevented disputes from snowballing. Yet in other cases, it says, the sessions were a major factor that contributed to the recurrence of sectarian attacks.

The report warns that reconciliation sessions have evolved into a parallel judicial system that competes with the official justice system and are often used as a way to evade the enforcement of the law.

“This is because in these sessions the side with the greater tribal or group presence can impose its own terms, which in some cases include penalties for those who seek to exercise their constitutional and legal right to seek redress with the courts,” says Ibrahim.

Some justice officials have exacerbated the problem by not applying the law and accepting reconciliation terms without considering the gravity of the crimes committed. They have included murder, the looting of public and private property and houses of worship and the possession of firearms.

The EIPR study argues that reconciliation sessions engage superficially with the manifestations and causes of sectarian disputes.

“Instead of examining the roots of the problem in a local context and attempting to resolve it, they simply attempt to stop the attacks, even temporarily, without considering terms that may prevent the situation from blowing up yet again,” the study concludes. With time, the tendency toward simplistic solutions only stokes the problem, fostering resentment and further eroding the Coptic community’s confidence in state institutions.

The study highlights reconciliation agreements containing terms that violate rights upheld in international human rights conventions and in the Egyptian constitution concluded under the auspices of state officials. Rights that have been violated include freedom of religion and belief, freedom of worship, freedom of opinion and expression, the protection of property and the freedom to seek redress with the courts. “This essentially codifies social discrimination and entrenches the stratification of citizens on the basis of religion,” says Ibrahim.

The EIPR study demonstrates how the organisation and leadership of reconciliation sessions is often monopolised by specific interest groups, be they figures close to local governance structures, former members of Mubarak’s now dissolved National Democratic Party (NDP) or people who enjoy wide financial and tribal influence. Immediately following the 25 January Revolution members of the Muslim Brotherhood, of Salafi parties such as Al-Nour and of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya replaced the NDP. After Morsi was removed the balance moved back in favour of powerful local families and former NDP members of parliament. In all cases, the EIPR study concludes, customary sessions were used politically to curry favour and popularity, both with state officials and local residents.

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