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Bedouin arbitration processes: A societal safeguard?

Despite media portrayals of Sinai's lawlessness, Bedouins have deep-rooted justice systems that they vow safeguard society, and that Egypt's new constitution should recognise

Sarah El-Rashidi , Sunday 11 Nov 2012
A traditional Bedouin courtroom (Photo: Sarah El-Rashidi)
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The iconic Sinai Peninsula has acquired an anarchic reputation following the January 25 Revolution. The security vacuum in the sandy desert terrain has enabled a significant increase in criminal activity, threatening national and regional stability.

Sinai’s Bedouin community, however, insist they have managed to maintain control and protect natives, ensuring crime rates remain low through their Bedouin judicial systems.

“We take credit for keeping things in order here!” Judge Abdel Hedi, a middle aged traditional Bedouin judge from the Sawairka tribe, the largest in North Sinai, told Ahram Online.

“The fact that there is no state, army or police, yet crime is hardly visible, confirms our traditional judicial system is working!” he added.

“In Sinai there are three types of judicial systems practiced: Egyptian civil law, Orfi-traditional Bedouin law and Sharia-Islamic law,” explained Ahmed Abu Deera, a local Bedouin from Al-Arish.

Established in 1949, the Egyptian Civil Code contains 1149 articles and follows the French civil law archetype. It concentrates on the regulation of business and commerce and disregards family law; the religion of the concerned party deals with this area. Thus, Sharia law is applicable for most Egyptians given the majority Muslim population.

Many Bedouin criticise Egyptian civil law since it ignores their rights.

“The Egyptian constitution ignores our customs in terms of the traditional Bedouin judicial systems. So we are now fighting for our rights to be recognised by the civil state,” said renowned Bedouin rights activist Said, the younger brother of Judge Abdel Hedi.

Bedouin judicial systems

Bedouin judicial systems vary among tribes; some date back to pre-Islamic times and consequently do not abide by Sharia. Many of these systems are becoming redundant as more Bedouins are adhering to civil or Sharia law.

“The traditional judge system was stronger in the past, but the government tried to weaken it, which has worked. People started to go to civil courts,” stated Abdel Hedi, sitting cross-legged on the floor sporting a pristine white galabaya (male dress) and ghotora (head piece).

Specific codes of honour reflecting pre-Islamic customs uphold the Bedouin justice mechanisms. Sharaf for men and ird for women are one of the three components of Bedouin ethics, as well as hospitality, courage and honour. 

Ird is the honour code for women; a woman is born with ird, but sexual promiscuity may jeopardise it. Sharaf relates to the male code of honour and involves protecting the ird of the women in the family, as well as property, the community and upholding tribal honour.

Markedly, Bedouin courts often do not permit women to act as defendants or witnesses, and male elders from the community tend to relay verdicts.

“Bedouin customs and traditions silence us women in the public and private domain,” explained Hanan Moqaibid, a Bedouin women’s rights activist who aspires for their rights to be protected in the new constitution.

Members of a single tribe tend to abide by the same judicial structure based on ancestral descent. Closely related tribes may also follow similar systems of justice, and may even use the same court rooms.

“The Sawairka tribe follows the Orfi-traditional Bedouin judicial system,” explained Abdel Hedi, further describing how his house and office near the local mosque in Shiekh Zuweid are both used as court rooms.  

Orfi is a single-level judicial system headed by a judge; it is the dominant Bedouin arbitration process followed by certain tribes in the Peninsula. Orfi courts adopt an intermediary approach between two parties, which uniquely in many cases does not tend to search for the truth or reprimand the guilty. 

“As a traditional judge I work out problems between tribes. I didn’t inherit being a judge; I gained this position of authority after attaining people’s trust,” Sheikh Abdel Hedi told Ahram Online whilst ensuring his guests were kept well hydrated with frequent servings of sugary black tea, a typical indication of Bedouin hospitality.  

“Bedouin law has a long history, but it is ever expanding. For instance, if someone does something immoral, which is not accounted for in our legal codes, and it is repeated, then a new law is created,” declared the sheikh.

Trial by ordeal, bisha’a, can be ordained by an Orfi court, which can also be rejected by protocol governing blood feuds. Bisha'a is a lie detection protocol applied in Sinai, and is used to settle the gravest crimes. It involves the accused party licking a hot metal spoon. Should the tongue show signs of injury, the accused is found guilty.

Blood feud protocols vary within tribes and can frequently annul court rulings. Murder is allotted a much harsher punishment than crimes that disrupt tribal solidarity. The punishment for murder is usually capital punishment, although some tribes may accept blood money as a suitable penalty.

“In the recent case of the murders of my relatives, Sheikh Khalaf and his son, once we identify the killer, we make the culprit attend a session with five sheikhs from his tribe and ask his guarantors to swear by God that he did not kill anyone,” clarified the Orfi judge.

Bedouins' nomadic nature dictates that the notion of incarceration is not practiced. Instead, criminal acts, depending on the gravity, tend to be settled by fines or corporal punishment. Given tribal solidarity, tribes are responsible for their member’s actions; hence if an accused party refuses to pay a fine their tribe is obligated to do so.

Conflict resolution is dealt with in a number of ways; if deemed a small issue it be resolved through talks between the families of the affected parties. Larger conflicts adhere by specific social protocols.

This unique Bedouin code of justice is now documented, but according to Abdel Hedi, most judges like himself know it by heart since it has been passed down through generations.

Orfi law is very comprehensive and covers all issues except women, marriage, divorce and inheritance; in such circumstance Sharia law is applied,” said Abdel Hedi.

Sharia law

Sharia law, an increasingly popular source of legislation in the Peninsula, is the religious law of Islam and moral code which, like secular law (fiqh), covers crime, politics and economics. It also incorporates legislation on issues concerning an individual’s personal life — for instance, sexual conduct, prayer and fasting.

“Sharia is the word of God; the purest form of legislation. Through the words of God issues are peacefully and wisely resolved,” affirmed Sheikh Abd Faisal Hamdeen Salman, a local Bedouin Islamic judge from Ahla Suna wa Gamaa movement, during a meeting in his small desert home near the Israeli border.

“Most people come to me to solve cases; they don’t go to the police! For instance, if someone kills someone, they visit me in my home, also my office, and I will judge according to Sharia,” Salman said.

He added: “We follow divine laws in all aspects of our lives, including jihad, which is a concept often misunderstood. According to Sharia, jihad should only be used in times of occupation or under presidential decree.”

Interpretations of Sharia nevertheless differ. Sinai’s Bedouin appear to have adopted a very strict Wahhabi interpretation of Sharia, according to a number of locals.

Wahhabism is a conservative religious movement founded in Saudi Arabia by Mohamed Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab, that professes to have a solid comprehension of tawhid (Islamic monotheism).

“After the revolution, many committees have been established following Sharia law. But the problem is they subscribe to the extreme militant interpretation. Hence we are imploring people to revert to the moderate Al-Azhar philosophy,” said Abdel Hedi, explaining how the free distribution of radical texts and tapes by Saudi Arabia over the last 15 years in North Sinai negatively affected Sharia interpretations.

The concept of Sharia committees was reinforced by Sheikh Abd Faisal Hamdeen Salman.  

“After 25 January (2011) we created a committee; 70-80 per cent of people come to the committee, which acts as a Sharia judgement system. Sometimes even people from the government come.”  

Future inclinations

Egypt’s new government is obliged to reflect on traditional arbitration processes in this volatile region when considering security as well as socio-economic advancement. Many Bedouin believe inclusion and respect of their customs by the state is a fundamental security prerequisite. 

“Respect in the new constitution for our traditional Bedouin laws, culture and customs is crucial. Without this recognition, how can we revere the state?” asserted Bedouin rights activist Said.      

“A protocol agreement should be implemented between the police and tribes to encourage collaboration and the application of the Bedouin judicial system. Every police station should have a Bedouin judge picked by the tribe, not the minister of interior like the old regime did,” said Abdel Hedi.

Small problems according to the esteemed judge can be solved internally, whilst large problems can be handled through this protocol. Concurrently, the sheikh also identified the urgent need for development in Sinai.

“One cannot simply incarcerate and punish criminals who are deprived of equal rights. It’s a matter of rights and duties: this determines good citizenship. Development is thus essential before a justice system can be fairly put in place. ”

Some, namely Salafi-orientated Bedouins, are positive about the new Islamist government’s stand concerning Egypt’s draft constitution. “We have faith in Morsi and the new government,” confirmed Sheikh Salman, one of North Sinai’s popular Sharia judges.  

Others remain sceptical of the government's intentions, accusing the Freedom and Justice Party of hijacking religion as a tool to further their authority and capitalistic goals.

“I prefer an honest Christian or atheist arbitrator more than an unjust Muslim!” said Abdel Hedi. 

He added: “No one should judge except God. The Muslim Brotherhood is fooling people taking the moral high ground. I do not trust that they will fulfill our legislative demands.”

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