A report by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) on the response of local communities to sectarian tensions claims the sessions to address community problems are having a negative effect.
Published last Wednesday, the report documents the use of ‘customary reconciliation sessions’, in which figures of a local community gather to resolve disputes, typically between Christian and Muslim families. The research – entitled ‘According to Which Customs? The Role of Customary Reconciliation Sessions in Sectarian Incidents and the Responsibility of the State’ – covers cases starting from the 25 January Revolution, though the EIPR has been recording their use since 2002.
The report’s author, Ishak Ibrahim, who is also an officer at the EIPR’s freedom of religion and belief programme, told the audience assembled at Cairo’s Press Syndicate: “After the January 2011 uprising, people hoped that people’s freedom would increase but in terms of rural communities this did not happen.”
According to Ibrahim, during the era of former president Mohamed Morsi, Christians were second-class citizens, and there were high levels of sectarian violence partly as the level of fundamentalism rose in that period and violence increased.
The use of ‘customary reconciliation sessions’, whilst long established, spiralled after the ouster of Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood regime in July 2013, with over a third of Egyptian governorates documented as using them, especially in Minya.
Ibrahim continued that the use of the reconciliation sessions is declining in relation with the general decline of the power of Islamists in the country, but suggested there is still a general bias in favour of Muslims in Egypt’s civil law.
The report breaks down sectarian conflict into various forms, including the banning of Christians from praying in churches, local disputes that snowball in to sectarian violence and, very commonly, relationships between Muslims and Christians causing problems among the community.
When incidents such as the above occur, one of the main reasons that local communities turn to customary reconciliations sessions is that they are a quicker and cheaper method than going through the official legal system, which can take years to resolve disputes.
Ibrahim’s report claims the councils are part of the sectarian violence themselves. For instance, when there are local accusations against an individual over insulting another’s religion, it has become precedent that the ‘defendant’ and often his family are forced to leave the area. There is no compensation and often they have their possessions looted.
While the majority of customary reconciliation sessions occur in the countryside and away from the seat of the government in Cairo, some have also taken place in the capital.
In June 2014, a reconciliation session was held in the Eastern Cairo district of Matariya after a dispute between a Muslim and Christian family spiralled when the former placed building materials in front of the latter’s furniture shop. The dispute led to an armed clash in which a Muslim man was killed. The reconciliation session was attended by Major General Yehia Al-Irawy, deputy security chief of Cairo among other top police officials.
The terms of the agreement were that the Christian family were to “present five shrouds and five calves, meaning that the life of a Muslim man is worth that of five Copts”, as well as presenting a hundred camels, donating a 234 square metre piece of land and a million pounds. All of the family members of the Christian family were also expelled from Matareya.
The report finds that the state justice system is turning a blind eye to the phenomena and not intervening and in terms of justice is wrong for numerous reasons. In one manner, these sessions are wrong because their decisions usually mirror power structures in a community and also because the ‘defendants’ usually flee and do not face responsibility for actions.
This problem is compounded by local government and police officers often attending the councils and lending a form of legitimacy to them.
The council’s are seen as a tool to resolve sectarian problems but the EIPR research reports that the lack of justice the sessions deliver mean that a proper resolution of a dispute is not arrived at. However, the report continues that reconciliation councils are not in themselves wrong, they should, however, be part of the legal system not above it, as they have become a form of extra-judicial punishment
By letting this disregard for the rule of law go on, the “state is practicing a form of racism against its own citizens”, Ibrahim said. Under this system there cannot be peaceful co-existence between people of different religions because the government is not giving everyone the same rights.
“Social mechanisms are usually an acceptable, useful and much needed means of containing conflicts and dealing with sectarian tensions… However, such means should be employed side by side with the legal interventions to which citizens are entitled, and it is the state’s duty to guarantee these,” the report concludes.