This article was first published at Arab West Report.
For many Christians in Egypt, customary reconciliation sessions (CRS) represent one of the most visceral symbols of discrimination against their community. Existing outside the scope of formal law and justice, CRS offer a quick alternative to the lengthy judicial process as village elders and religious leaders decide matters of guilt, innocence, and punishment.
In some cases, however, punishment against Copts has been collective. In others, the only guilt is in breaking local custom, not law. At times, Muslims guilty of crimes have been ‘reconciled’. And often the CRS is conducted in the presence of police, lending the appearance of state legitimacy to proceedings.
But does this description characterize the CRS in its entirety?
In 2010 Arab West Report conducted a major study into the practice, entitled Social Reconciliation: Pre- and Post-Conflict in the Egyptian Setting. Using a case study from Izbat Bushra, it examined the factors behind and efficacy of this common practice.
In July 2015, AWR investigated a CRS with Georgetown University PhD candidate Matthew Anderson which drove a Christian family from their village in Kafr Darwish. Matthew’s report was published on January 14 and can be found here. In November, 2015 AWR translated a document supplied by a CRS practitioner, Sheikh Hamdi Abd al-Fattah of Maghagha, detailing the proscribed penalties for various offenses.
And on January 16, 2016, AWR returned to Maghagha to allow Sheikh Hamdi to field questions from a collection of interested Egyptians and foreign residents. The session was held in a church in the village of Qufada, where Fr. Yu’annis maintains a strong friendship and CRS cooperation with Sheikh Hamdi.
The following is a summary of the questions asked of the sheikh and the answers he provided.
CRS can be compared to the origins of English common law. Do you find it to be widely practiced in Egypt because of social and cultural acceptance?
Yes, this is correct. CRS is completely different from the judiciary system in terms of speed, but it is like it in terms of Muslims and Christians being equal before the law. But in Upper Egypt people respect our traditional customs more than the law, and fear the punishment of the CRS more than the judiciary. Our proceedings help contain problems before they spread, whether they are between Muslims, Christians, or one of each party.
What is your background as a CRS practitioner?
I have studied Shari’a, obtained a diploma in international arbitration from Cairo University, and am a consultant with the International Arbitration Association and a member in the Egyptian Committee for Customary Arbitration.
How did the rulings in the translated document come to be agreed upon?
Most were the judgments given in actual cases, but others were decided by local sheikhs in order to help prevent these cases from occurring in reality.
Why are all the penalties given in terms of specified fines?
The formal law system can prescribe either a fine or a jail sentence, but not the CRS. But in three cases the CRS is sometimes able to authorize a greater punishment and kick the offending party out of the village, with security implementing the terms. These involve murder, sectarian conflict, or sexual assault.
Do both parties have to agree in order to enter a CRS?
Yes, usually the victim comes to us first, and then we try to get the accused to come also. [At this Sheikh Hamdi showed an official CRS document with the signatures of both parties.]
If the accused does not present himself there are two methods to gain his assent for the CRS. First, we can threaten to involve the police. Or second, we bring the issue to the elders of the village, who are generally greatly respected. They then know how to get all parties to comply.
Are witnesses needed in the proceedings?
Yes. If there is conflicting testimony both sides present their witnesses and we decide between them. But if there are no witness both parties are put on oath by swearing on the Qur’an or the Bible, and then we evaluate the case by what they say. Sometimes police are present, but they do not interfere and lend only their legitimacy.
Some of the penalties demand a very high fine. What if they person cannot pay?
Customary law does not judge the person alone, but his family as well. If the person cannot pay on his own the family must assume the responsibility, or someone else on their behalf.
In the case of murder and if the accused admits to the crime, he will take a symbolic burial shroud to the victim’s family. This signifies him saying to them, ‘My life is yours, you can kill me or not as you choose.’ But always the custom is to forgive and accept the shroud in place of his life.
What about domestic disputes between husband and wife? Can they be part of CRS?
Marriage relations have their own set of regulations, as do other inter-family relationships.
How are the people educated in customary laws?
This is the responsibility of parents, who assume it naturally as part of society. But one important aspect of the CRS is that it is public. A lesson is always stronger if it is both seen and heard.
How can your example of cooperation with Fr. Yu’annis spread throughout Egypt?
We are not a backwards people; we have values and a heritage of civilization. The type of relationship I have with Fr. Yu’annis is not unique, it is found nationwide. Western media is not just, for it shows you only what will reinforce the image it wants to present, and misrepresents our reality of cooperation.
In Kafr Darwish, I blame our local media, for when the Christians were kicked out of their village, it failed to report that in another location a Muslim was kicked out of his village for similar circumstances.
A man was insulting women on social media in Ishneen al-Nasara, both Muslims and a few Christians. I presided over the session and banned him from the village for a period of five years. This penalty was proscribed regardless of his religion, and resembles the circumstances found in Kafr Darwish.
What I want now is for you to return to your countries and speak about us correctly. Will you do that?