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Culture Religion

Q&A with an Expert in Customary Reconciliation Sessions

This article was first published at Arab West Report.

Hamdi Abdel Fattah
Sheikh Hamdi Abd al-Fattah

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?

Categories
Current Events

Community ‘Justice’ Expels Copts from their Homes

A customary reconciliation session in Ismailia, from Misr el-Balad
A customary reconciliation session in Ismailia, via Misr el-Balad

My new report for World Watch Monitor, published June 17:

Forgive Emad Youssef if he and his extended family felt quite confused. The crowd welcoming them back to the village had only a few days earlier demanded they leave.

“They said this is the first time something like this has happened in our village,” he told private satellite channel, OnTV “and that, Inshallah, it won’t happen again.”

Yet it happens frequently in Egypt – at least 23 times in the last four years, according to new research released by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. Whose Customs? – a 78-page report by the group – points out that the period from 2011-2014 saw 45 instances in which sectarian strife was settled, in different ways, outside the law through “Customary Reconciliation Sessions.”

In concept, Customary Reconciliation Sessions are community-based conflict resolution, long established in Egyptian tradition. If two residents have a dispute, solving it through the judicial system is long and costly. Instead, “wise men” of the village will hear both sides and issue a binding ruling. Religious leaders are often involved.

If the dispute is violent, the Customary Reconciliation Session is a method to calm tensions and prevent escalation. Police are usually present to enforce security.

But in the case of Youssef and his relatives, all Coptic Christians, the session took place because police did not do their job in the first place.

”This (the forced ‘relocation’) happened while the police were in the village, and they did nothing to stop them,” a local Copt, choosing anonymity, said.

Emad’s brother Ayman is a migrant worker in Jordan, accused of sharing pictures deemed insulting of Muhammad on Facebook via his cell phone. Ayman claims he is innocent. Nevertheless, on May 27 a mob gathered in his home village back in Egypt, attacking the houses and fields of his family and their Coptic neighbors. The village of Kafr Darwish, about two-thirds Muslim, is located in Beni Suef, 70 miles south of Cairo.

Reports say that some local Muslim neighbors tried to defend the family, but the mayor was not able to control the situation. Officials and village leaders conducted a Customary Reconciliation Sessions and issued a verdict placating the mob. In Ayman’s absence his family was punished, resulting in the expulsion of 18 individuals, including Ayman’s mother and his 71-year-old father.

The displaced told of their ordeal as they were “traveling from one town to another and not finding a place to accommodate us.”

In this one instance, five families of 18 members had to contend with living in one room. “They expelled us while we have done nothing, we are struggling to provide for ourselves,” they said before their return.

Media is often inattentive to Upper Egyptian issues, but in this case the outcry was immediate. Popular broadcaster Ibrahim Eissa declared, “How is that we have an enlightened president but a Salafi [ultraconservative Muslim] state? We don’t have the courage to say: These are their homes and their life is here. Whoever stands against them and the law will be judged by the law!”

A day before Eissa said this, the Beni Sweif state governor had tried to intervene, announcing the displaced families would return. This only resulted in further attacks in the village. But the following day control was established. The governor convened a meeting in the village, with high profile political, religious, and security figures – and more than 2,000 residents.

According to Mideast Christian News, the governor announced that the law does not allow the displacement of any Egyptian from their home. He promised to restore the properties that had been damaged.

But Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic newspaper Watani, which helped first report the story, is not aware of even one Muslim arrested for the attacks. MCN reported that Christian villagers submitted the names of 20 individuals involved.

“I don’t consider this a happy ending, it is not a healthy situation and the law is not enforced,” Sidhom told World Watch Monitor.

Fanatics ”may harm Christians,” he said, ”but the greater harm is done to the sovereignty of the state.”

Ishak Ibrahim

 (right) with Amr Abdulrahman at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights press conference in Cairo, 10 June 2015
Ishak Ibrahim (right) with Amr Abdulrahman at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights press conference in Cairo, 10 June 2015

The incident was unique in that the state intervened to overturn the results of a Customary Reconciliation Session. But Ishak Ibrahim, lead author of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights report, said the non-prosecution of offenders is common. In the vast majority of cases studied, no arrests were made. In the few that were, the accused were released shortly thereafter. The reconciliation agreements often stipulated the relinquishing of legal procedures.

“If people reject the ruling it can result in more sectarian attacks,” said Ibrahim, “but accepting it helps the aggressors escape the consequences of their actions. We put responsibility on the government because it is the one tasked to protect citizens and their rights.”

Article 63 of the Egyptian constitution forbids the forced displacement of any citizen. Article 95 insists all judicial rulings must be personal, not collective. And while Article 185 of the penal code allows for a victim to waive prosecution in certain circumstances, these do not include looting, arson, or intimidation.

But the waiver of prosecution has not applied to Christian aggressors.

Not all incidents begin as sectarian. In 29 per cent of the studied cases, community tension resulted from a romantic relationship between a Muslim and a Christian, and in 16 per cent conflict emerged from land or other property disputes.

In each one where the Christian was at fault, legal prosecution continued after penalties, often exorbitant, had been stipulated by a Customary Reconciliation Session. But when the Muslim is at fault, reconciliation and social peace are emphasized. Sometimes there are no penalties whatsoever; other times the church has opted for waiving them to keep the peace.

Bias against Christians is also apparent in disputes with religious origins. Thirty-one percent of cases have to do with the practice of Christian religious ritual, including attempted church construction and repair.

Only one case was resolved in their favor.

‘Relocated’

Even the “Martyrs” Church, established by a presidential decision to honor the 20 Egyptian Copts killed in Libya by the self-proclaimed Islamic State, had to be “physically relocated” following protests and a subsequent Customary Reconciliation Session.

Eight per cent of cases had to do with expressing opinions on religious matters. The majority involved simply “liking” a Facebook page deemed insulting to Islam, and resulted in expulsion of the offender from his village.

World Watch Monitor previously reported on Gad Younan, a teacher from Minya arrested with some of his students for a video in which they made fun of Islamic State. Mideast Christian News  has recently reported that judicial procedures resulted in his release on bail pending further trial, but that the Customary Reconciliation Session agreement continues to demand he not return home.

“Customary reconciliation sessions are said to stop sectarian tension, but our analysis shows that they only serve to ignore it,” said Amr Abdulrahman, head of the civil liberties unit at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

Abdulrahman explained that those who conduct the reconciliation sessions often view them as above and apart from the law. This status is buttressed by the police presence that implicitly endorses the process.

And in a rare departure from Coptic restraint in criticism of the government, Bishop Aghathon of Minya accused local authorities of collusion with conservative Muslims in Customary Reconciliation Sessions. He told a Coptic satellite television channel that, in one incident in his diocese, the typical mob protest was instigated by security.

General Sayyid Nour el-Din, former director of security in Minya, defended the use of Customary Reconciliation Sessions. “It does not conflict with the law at all, it has to do with the prevention of bloody conflicts,” he told OnTV. “The security presence is there to protect the sessions, not to come up with their solution.”

Nour el-Din said security has to be especially vigilant as Islamist groups are looking for any excuse to explode the situation. Strong especially in the poorer southern governorates, their presence coincides with the use of Customary Reconciliation Sessions following sectarian incidents. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights reported 48 per cent of cases are from Upper Egypt, 33 per cent from Minya alone.

The Muslim Brotherhood officially condemned the forced displacement of Copts in Kafr Darwish, while blaming the church for tearing apart national unity through its support of the government.

This latter sentiment was emphasized by Amr Abdul Rahim, a former member of parliament from al-Gama’a al-Islamiya, an Islamist group implicated in many attacks on Copts in Upper Egypt during the 1990s.

“The church is part of Sisi’s regime,” Abdul Rahim said. “(The church clergy) have to wake up and realize they are playing with Coptic lives and leading them to a holocaust.”

Though Abdul Rahim insists that “Muslims” are not against Copts, his criticism makes no distinction between Islamist ideology and Muslim identity.

‘Roots of the Problem’

Statistics assembled by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights indicated the use of one Customary Reconciliation Session per month during the interim rule of the military, when, following the fall of Mubarak, a security vacuum existed and Islamist groups felt themselves in the ascendency. During Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood-led presidency, the rate rose to 1.25 per month.

It declined under interim president Mansour and incumbent president Sisi following the removal of Morsi, but the practice continues all the same. The report by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights noted six incidents, outside the scope of its report, in the first half of 2015 alone.

“From Mubarak to today, no regime has dealt with the roots of the problem,” said Ibrahim, the report’s lead author.

Sidhom tied Customary Reconciliation Sessions to an unreformed educational system that does not properly instill the values of citizenship. Related is a weak state apparatus that submits to the pressure of militant action apart from the law.

But Ibrahim emphasized he is not against Customary Reconciliation Sessions in principle.

“Anything that extinguishes sectarian tension is beneficial, as long as the process of law continues,” he told OnTV. “The problem is that it is a replacement for law, often compelled upon the weaker party, reflecting the local situation of power.”

But where power is balanced and tension is not high, Christians, like Muslims, avail themselves readily of a Customary Reconciliation Session, especially in view of a judicial system saddled with millions of new and pending cases.

“In 90 per cent of the cases, CRS is beneficial,” Fr. Yu’annis Anton of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Minya told World Watch Monitor. “Relationships are reconciled and everyone takes his rights.”

Anton speaks from a long experience with Customary Reconciliation Sessions, underlining their utility in non-sectarian cases. This is not the case of Kafr Darwish, he said, which was an emergency situation.

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights noted that its 45 cases detail only Customary Reconciliation Session use following sectarian clashes, not the practice itself.

Perhaps following in the footsteps of Jesus, Emad Youssef chooses to reflect positively.

“This trial was from God, who has used it to increase the love shown to us by Muslim neighbors,” he said.

“They have made reconciliation,” added the 71 year old father. “We have returned home, in goodness and peace.”