Non-Traditional Justice in Upper Egypt

Throughout Egypt the justice system is known to be very slow. Though it has a long and respectable history, as the population exploded and litigation increased, many turn to non-traditional methods to avoid spending a year or more in court.

Sometimes, a non-traditional method can be thuggery. A landlord, for example, might expel by force a legal tenant and deal with the consequences later – whenever the court gets around to hearing the case.

Sometimes, a non-traditional method can be arbitration. Egypt, mindful of the slowness of its judiciary, has established a limited number of licensed arbiters, especially for commercial and business disputes.

Yet for many, especially in Upper Egypt, the non-traditional method of choice is the reconciliation session. Completely outside the law, two aggrieved parties turn to a respected man of the community, and set their dispute before him.

Reconciliation sessions have a deserved bad reputation, especially as pertains to sectarian conflicts. Rather than ruling by law, the police enforce calm in an enflamed village, and then Muslim sheikhs and Christian priests sit together to ‘reconcile’ their people. Perhaps a local dispute – where a Christian may very well be at fault – escalates and a Muslim mob distributes group punishment by burning shops and homes.

If the judiciary in Egypt is slow, the law is weak. The efficient solution is to engage the sheikhs and priests to determine monetary compensation for the Christians and then make a public display of reconciliation. Valuable as this may be, too often it covers over smoldering resentment and rarely punishes wrongdoers.

Yet far more frequent in occurrence are the ordinary instances of two parties settling their grievance amicably. This does not always mean a happy ending, nor is it free of questionable rulings. But where a flawed legal system is the norm, it works.

I encountered two examples recently which help give perspective. These examples hear from only one side, and both involve Christians exclusively. At the very least, they indicate how Christians are not simply the victims of reconciliation sessions, as often portrayed in the media. On the contrary, they are willing participants mirroring exactly their Muslim neighbors.

In the first example, a Christian family consisting of three adult brothers suffered tragedy when the third brother died young. That he also died unmarried added conflict to the tragedy.

What to do with his share of the family inheritance? To whom should he leave it? If the simple answer is to divide it equally, the equation is complicated by the fact he lived with one of the brothers as a semi-dependent.

Yet the other brother stated he paid ‘rent’ to the first brother to help offset costs. In the end, they took their problem to the church. The two priests of the village convened, heard the stories, and pronounced a simple 50-50 division between the surviving brothers. All were satisfied, and life carried on.

In the second example the dispute involved the church – that is, the priests themselves. The family of the priest in question inherited a large tract of land, complete with ownership papers establishing their right. Further distant relatives, however, received no share but believed they were entitled. Yet as the church was complicated in the conflict, the petitioning family decided to go to a Muslim village sheikh.

This particular Muslim sheikh is very well respected as a non-traditional ‘reconciler’ in the village, by both Muslims and Christians. He is said to deal according to the right, and not by religion or benefit. Yet he also draws a fee for his services; it is not simply a service provided. His authority comes only from village reputation. He has no license from the government.

This fee can reach up to several hundred dollars, and is traditionally paid by the disputant who first appeals to arbitration, win or lose. Trusting the judgment of the sheikh, who has been known by both parties since childhood, the landowning family agreed.

In the end, the sheikh ruled for the landowners – their names were on the legal documentation; it was a simple case. But in doing so the sheikh put himself in a quandary. The landless family was poor; they had no means to pay his fee unless they won the judgment.

In saying so, care here must be taken since the sheikh’s perspective is not known. Yet it is said of him he was on watch for any impropriety on the part of the landowners, so as to extract from them a fee for ‘contempt’.

Apparently, the landowner believed the sheikh was listening too favorably to the complainant’s cause, and not letting him speak. At one point he interrupted angrily, ‘Shut up, sheikh!’

With this highly culturally insensitive remark, the sheikh fined the landowner the several hundred dollars which should have been his fee from the original litigant. Whether or not this swayed his understanding of the case, he then ruled according to what appears to be justice.

Of course, the winning Christian family finds this an example of injustice, but once the non-traditional reconciliation session is begun, its judgments are final.

It is reported the sheikh has spoken privately to other members of the family, saying he will return the fee if the insulting party simply apologizes, or even has his landowning relative do so for him. Both refuse.

These examples are not complete pictures of non-traditional justice in Upper Egypt. They do not include the issues of vendetta, honor killings, or the messy intersection of these with sectarian conflict.

What they provide instead is a picture of the normalcy and unremarkable nature of Christian participation in reconciliation sessions. It is not simply the headline-making instances of miscarriage of justice that characterize the practice.

Swift justice and rule of law would be better. In their absence, however, non-traditional methods work reasonably well.

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Photo Credit: al-Masry al-Youm

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