By Sandra Elliot and ICC Egypt Representative
If you’ve followed the recent spate of attacks in Egypt, you have likely heard the term “reconciliation sessions.” These are not kindhearted and well-intended sessions of forgiveness and redemption, but rather a cultural phenomenon in which extra-judicial meetings steal the legal rights of religious minorities who have suffered loss.
Predating the modern judicial system in Egypt, reconciliatory sessions have long been the method of community-based conflict resolution as they are deeply ingrained in Egyptian history and culture. These customary sessions rely on the accumulation of a set of customary rules that, over time, have formed a prevailing norm within particular frameworks or groupings. Their mission is to address conflicts arising between individuals, families, household or workers of certain professions. With the passage of time, these different norms and their applications have acquired a binding force.
The parties in a conflict will typically decide on a neutral place for arbitration where village elders and religious leaders will preside over the negotiations. After cases and evidence are presented, the presiding arbitrators are left alone to assess and estimate the errors of each position. They will then announce their verdict and file a reconciliation report including a penalty clause stipulating the amount of money to be paid by either party in the case of breaching the terms of the agreement.
Sounds fair, right? Maybe in theory, but not in reality.
Customary reconciliation sessions in Egypt often intimidate Christians into surrendering their legal rights while their Muslim assailants avoid any punishment for their violence. They are often used in lieu of judicial procedures when Muslims violate Christians or their property. Typically, in these sessions, disputes are resolved by insisting that Coptic victims do not press charges to help diffuse an already volatile situation.
As a weak and powerless minority, Christians dare not reject the decisions for fear of further violence. Under pressure from an infuriated Muslim community, Christians often agree to drastic terms as a mean to guarantee their own safety.
In Upper Egypt, a large number of cases surrounding sectarian violence end up in such sessions. These meetings have faced widespread criticism from many within the Christian community in Egypt who see the meetings as a form of legal manipulation that allows perpetrators to evade punishment and consolidate religious discrimination. Each time that offenders are not brought to justice, others are emboldened to commit more criminal acts in the assurance that they will be defended under such sessions.
Customary reconciliation sessions constituted a disturbing encroachment on the sovereignty of the state, its judicial system, and on the principles of citizenship and non-discrimination. Thestarting point to resolve sectarian conflicts should be, instead, the immediate application of the constitution and the laws related to these conflicts without bias.
Reconciliation in Al-Beida village
In a recent case reported by International Christian Concern (ICC), a Christian man, Naim Aziz, was renovating his home when a Muslim mob attacked under the impression that the construction was intended for a new church. The mob attacked Naim’s property and person, along with adjacent homes and other Christians nearby. In the end, police arrested six Muslim men, all of whom were released by the end of the day, and six Christian men, who were released on bail the following day.
“After we were released from the custody of Amriya police station…the security forces would not allow us to go back home unless we opt[ed] for extrajudicial reconciliation,” Naim told ICC, “Although we were the victims of the attack and had solely incurred the injuries and losses, we were being coerced into reconciling with our Muslim attackers.”
The chief of police at Amriya told Naim that the law would not uphold their case, and they would only be allowed home if they relinquished their legal rights and accepted the terms of the reconciliation session. The chief promised to arrest Naim and his family if they refused.
“On July 4…a large delegation of the village Muslims visited us and insisted that some reconciliation should be worked out for the sake of peace in the village,” Naim continued, “There was no way we could say no, especially [since] we had been threatened with police arrest.”
The session was held on July 5, with the Amriya police chief participating among other leaders. The Muslim perpetrators made a formal apology toward the wronged Coptic family and offered to pay compensation, but as is the rural tradition, the Christians refused the money which was offered. Both parties signed binding documents relinquishing their legal rights.
The Aziz family received no legal or monetary compensation for their losses.
The legal injustice is blatantly clear. Christians suffer a great deal after their initial victimization as they are bullied into reconciliation sessions that steal their rights as Egyptian citizens. If the government of Egypt wants to make progress in sectarian conflict, here is a crystal clear starting point. Egypt has a judicial system for a purpose; may it be put to proper use.