Outsourcing Justice in the Sinai: Sharia Courts Thrive in the Shadow of a Weak State

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The declaration of a state of emergency in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula on March 9 in anticipation of planned jihadist attacks on government targets indicates the seriousness of a systemic security breakdown that threatens to destabilize not only Egypt but also its volatile borders with Gaza and Israel. With an estimated 1,600 extremists on the loose in Sinai, it’s no wonder this 23,000-square-mile desert has been ominously dubbed, “the new Afghanistan.”  A land bridge linking the black markets and fragile states of North Africa with the greater Middle East, Sinai has become a transcontinental corridor of organized crime and global terrorism. It is a place where masked gunmen routinely hijack police cars in broad daylight, jihadists brazenly test-fire long-range missiles from rogue training camps, and gangs of human traffickers sell sub-Saharan refugees into slavery, or worse, steal their organs.

In the economically destitute and politically disenfranchised governorates of North and South Sinai, the need for law and order has never been more acute, yet public confidence in the central government is at an all-time low. After decades of economic mismanagement and a misguided counter-terrorism crackdown that resulted in the mass incarceration of thousands of Bedouins – whose twenty some-odd tribes account for roughly 70 percent of the population of the North and South Sinai governorates – the Egyptian state is associated not with security, but with incompetence, repression and predatory corruption.

In a region where government officials are an object of public disdain and anger, it is unsurprising that residents of Sinai are looking elsewhere for security and justice. Increasingly, they are turning to a growing number of informal Islamic courts, which are steadily displacing an official justice system viewed as corrupt and inefficient. Since the revolution, informal Islamic courts claim to have absorbed an estimated 75 percent of the caseload once handled by the official justice system. These courts – which operate on shoestring budgets in basements and school classrooms after hours – have successfully capitalized on the fragility of the state in their campaign to promote Sharia law as the only legitimate alternative to what would otherwise be a legal vacuum. 

Informal dispute resolution has been practiced in the Sinai for centuries through the administration of tribal common law known as “urf,” but what has changed since the revolution is the increasingly Islamic character of customary justice – a byproduct of the overall Islamization of tribes that accelerated in the 1980s, under the influence of Salafi ideology imported by Bedouin students returning from the Nile Delta region and particularly Zagazig University, one of the key intellectual strongholds of hardline Islamism. By the 1990s, a wave of newly Islamized Bedouins were actively proselytizing and setting up Salafi community associations in North Sinai, where their activities were tolerated and even encouraged by the Mubarak regime, which viewed Salafis as a politically expedient counterweight to the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood. Since the revolution, Salafi influence in Sinai has continued to increase through the spread of charitable organizations offering badly needed services that the state has failed to deliver. 

The abdication of traditional state functions to informal institutions, a characteristic of failed states, is becoming increasingly apparent in Sinai, where the legal and economic activities of Salafi groups are starting to resemble what political scientists have called a “shadow state.” While government officials have refused to publicly acknowledge the existence of Islamic courts operating outside of the official justice system, they are increasingly cooperating informally with self-described “Sharia judges” like Sheikh Ahmed al-Beik. He claims that local officials are actively transferring specific cases for adjudication in his makeshift courtroom – dubbed the “House of Sharia Judgment” — which he operates out of a rented apartment in the North Sinai city of al-Arish. “There is informal cooperation between the government authorities and the Sharia courts. We visit the head of Sinai security regularly, and they frequently send us cases to arbitrate using Sharia,” he said. According to al-Beik, the North Sinai security directorate, military intelligence, and the local police all routinely send “many, many cases” to the Sharia courts for adjudication, in what is beginning to look like a voluntary abdication of the government’s sovereign law enforcement functions to independent Islamic judges.  Evidence that the government is deliberately outsourcing the administration of justice to informal Sharia courts suggests that Sinai is not actually as lawless as it appears, and is quietly evolving a parallel justice system that Sheikh al-Beik hopes will one day provide the framework for a de facto Islamic sub-state.

Al-Beik, who proudly identifies himself as the oldest Sharia judge in Sinai, has been presiding over an informal Islamic court for decades. Trained as an agricultural engineer, he first began to adjudicate disputes in 1980, making house calls to mediate the disagreements of fellow tribesmen.  As relations between government authorities and Bedouin tribes have deteriorated, demand for al-Beik’s services has increased dramatically, he said. After the revolution, He established his “House of Sharia Judgment” in al-Arish and has since opened two more branches in Sheikh Zuweid and Ismailia. Now, he can barely keep up with the volume of new cases. “The demand for Sharia judgments is such that I don’t have time for all of the cases brought to me. My daily schedule is booked for months in advance,” al-Beik said.

Al-Beik attributes the growing popularity of the Sharia courts to a corresponding loss of confidence in the official justice system. Increasingly, parties dissatisfied with decisions issued by state courts are opting to relitigate their disputes from scratch in the informal Sharia courts. According to al-Beik, “Sometimes, the parties come to us to start the whole case over again because they felt the case was decided unjustly.” he said.

Al-Beik is one of seven or eight senior Sharia judges implementing Islamic law in Sinai. He handles civil as well as criminal cases, ranging from murder to land disputes, and doles out punishments drawn directly from the Qur’an and Sunna. For example, the Islamic punishment for manslaughter is 100 camels or their monetary equivalent. Al-Beik laments that he does not have the authority to implement the full spectrum of “hudud” – the harshest of Islamic punishments — which may include “cutting the hand or the neck or lashing the back or stoning … because we do not have a full Islamic state, yet.” In cases where al-Beik’s court specifies a hudud punishment but does not have the power to enforce it, the court instead applies a more lenient “ta’zir” punishment – usually a monetary fine – while informing the defendant of the “hudud” punishment to which he would be subject in a full Islamic state.

The spread of Sharia courts in Sinai is as much about the weakness of the state as it is about the relative strength of Islamists. Lately, Sinai security personnel have been making news not for their success in maintaining law and order but for their own bad behavior. In November, police clashed violently with Central Security Force (CSF) conscripts after hundreds of the latter went on a hunger strike to protest mistreatment by their commanding officers.  The fight, which left 12 CSF conscripts injured, is symptomatic of a deeper rift between the various, uncoordinated military and law enforcement authorities operating in the area. A former governor of North Sinai, Mohamed Abdel Fadeel Shousha told Egyptian media that inter-agency coordination between the army and police is non-existent.  The fragmentation of local authorities has been deeply frustrating to tribal leaders seeking the protection of the state.

The antagonistic relationship between Bedouins and the state is a symptom of decades of negligent governance, economic mismanagement and episodes of intense repression in 2004 and 2006, when former President Hosni Mubarak’s government indiscriminately arrested thousand of Bedouins and detained them for years without trial on suspicion of complicity in a series of bombings at Red Sea resorts. The government’s most recent policy blunders – a controversial ban on land ownership near the Israeli border that has local sheikhs up in arms, and the military trial of a civilian freelance photojournalist, Muhamed Sabry (who contributed reporting for this article in between court hearings) – have done little to win hearts and minds.

Many of the Bedouins were initially hopefully that an Islamist president would be more responsive to their grievances than Hosni Mubarak’s regime, but they have grown increasingly impatient with what they view as empty promises for economic relief. Although Mohamed Morsi’s campaign platform included plans for economic development of Sinai, the government has been too preoccupied with Egypt’s out-of-control deficit, expected to exceed initial projections by 50 percent for the current fiscal year, to make much progress on its agenda in Sinai, aside from announcing vague plans to build an industrial zone in Abu Zenima. While this is an admirable project in theory, it is unclear how the government could possibly finance it, amid reports that negotiations over a long-awaited IMF loan have once again gone off the rails.

Disillusionment with Morsi’s government is growing. In an ominous sign that public opinion is turning against the Brotherhood, armed arsonists wielding Molotov cocktails attempted to burn down the house of a senior Brotherhood official in North Sinai on February 2. Amid a nationwide police strike on March 11, anti-Brotherhood protesters laid siege to the City Council Building in North Sinai and burned tires outside while chanting, “Overthrow the rule of the Guide!”

The deepening rift between the Muslim Brotherhood and more conservative Salafi groups has contributed to fears that Sinai is tilting toward the latter.  But it would be a mistake to assume that the rise of Salafism in Sinai is the source of the region’s security problems, and in fact, Salafi leaders – including the Nour Party – have consistently staked out strong public positions against fundamentalism in Sinai, and Salafi Sheikhs have met with Egyptian military officials several times in recent months to discuss security cooperation.

Terrorism and organized crime in Sinai have been erroneously conflated with religious fundamentalism. In media reports, the perpetrators are routinely referred to as generic “Islamic militants,” but to the conservative Bedouin tribes that populate the region, there is nothing Islamic about them. To the contrary, local Islamist groups have been at the forefront of the movement to crack down on militants. Following the declaration of a state of emergency over reports of jihadist activity in March, Sheikh Mohamed Masoud warned of the presence of “sleeper cells” that are capitalizing on the current security breakdown and withdrawal of police. Meanwhile, an organization known as the “Sinai Mujahideen Society,” formed in the 1960s to facilitate intelligence cooperation between Bedouin tribes and the state security apparatus, is currently helping to organize citizen militias known as “popular committees” to fill the security vacuum and confront extremists.

But while some vigilante groups in Sinai may be genuinely committed to supporting counter-terrorism efforts, the prospect of an Islamic police state staffed by informal militias that are not accountable to Egypt’s government or its laws has very troubling implications for human rights and pluralism. Recently, a vigilante group calling itself the “Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice," styled after Saudi Arabia’s morality police squads of the same name, distributed leaflets around North Sinai announcing an Islamic crusade against drugs and cigarettes and threatening “very harsh” punishments for anyone caught using them. 

Both Sheikh al-Beik and another prominent Salafi leader, Sheikh Marei Arar, firmly denied the existence of any organized vigilante groups in the Sinai, accusing anti-Islamists of fabricating false news stories to malign the reputation of Salafis.  But al-Beik hinted that he would not oppose the activities of such religious police, if and when they materialize. “It is entirely legal under Sharia to have such groups fighting criminals and drug dealers. So if they do exist someday, this will be a very good thing, and we will support and help them,” he said.  Whatever the future of the vigilantes, it is clear that Islamic justice will remain a core feature of the Sinai’s legal and political landscape for the foreseeable future.  Whether or not Sharia displaces the official justice system as the de facto law of the land depends on if and when the Egyptian state succeeds in reconstituting a security apparatus that is worthy of the public’s respect.

Mara Revkin is a student at Yale Law School and former Assistant Director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. She can be reached at mara.revkin@yale.edu and on Twitter @MaraRevkin. Muhamed Sabry contributed reporting from North Sinai.

Photo: Mosa’ab Elshamy

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