In the years since Egypt’s 2011 uprising that toppled the regime of Hosny Mubarak, the country’s Coptic Christian minority has suffered attacks and violations at the hands of Muslims with the complicity of local authorities and occasional acquiescence of the church. This is the finding of the human rights group, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, which lays, in its report, particular emphasis on abuses of so called ‘customary practices’- a method of settling local disputes that is outside the legal system.
In a study released on June 11, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, looked at the role of customary practices in the settlement of religious disputes.
In so-called customary sessions, community and traditional leaders, mostly clerics, are left to handle a wide variety of crimes and local problems. They also play a key role in resolving conflicts and feuds among families.
The study concluded that over the period from 2011 to the end of 2014, customary sessions had come to be a quasi-judicial system competing with the official one.
The study said: "Reconciliation based on customary rules has become a way to evade the implementation of the law. The reason for this is that these sessions have tended to establish this principle: in any feud involving different religious groups the side with the stronger tribal clout normally dictates its conditions to the other side."
These conditions sometimes stated clearly that the party in a religious dispute that would choose to exercise its constitutional and legal right to seek justice in court would face penalties. In other words, customary practices were explicitly denying people recourse to the law of the land.
Some of the customary penalties were anomalous and unjust, the study noted, citing one such ruling that forced Christians in a village in the southern region of Miniya to be confined to their homes for 15 days, banning them from going out to work or to buy their daily needs.
In another religion-tainted dispute, a customary session ruled that a Christian family in the village of Sharbat in Alexandria be displaced and its property sold under the supervision of Muslims who were the other party to the feud.
Customary sessions have become the preserve of specific groups, the study said. Some of these groups have close connections to institutions of local government. Some boasted close ties to the former ruling National Democratic Party. Others had useful connections to the Muslim Brotherhood during its brief period in power and to its ally, the radical group Al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, or to former members of parliament and big families in provincial areas.
Some of these groups also derive their influence from tribal affiliations or monetary power, the study noted.
Over the last few weeks, the province of Bani Soueif in the south of Egypt has been the scene of two incidents in which a customary ruling was enforced to settle disputes highly coloured by the religion of the plaintiffs. Both cases resulted in a forced relocation of Coptic Christian families.
In the two incidents that occurred within a few days of each other last month, the trigger for both was an allegation of online blasphemy.
In the first incident, local Muslims in Mayyana village claimed that Maher Hanna, an 18-year old student, posted anti-Islamic slogans on his Facebook page, according to the daily Al-Masry Al-Youm.
Representatives of the church and local Muslim families met under the aegis of security officials and decided that Hanna’s family ought to be evicted from their home village.
A written apology was demanded and provided by the church. The family was evicted and then allowed back nearly two weeks later.
Hanna’s uncle, Sami Naguib told the daily Ettahrir:
"The problem is finished. The family returned home thanks to the efforts of the local security body, Muslim and Christian clerics and the customary council.”“I appeal to everybody not to reopen this matter so that we can quell the flame of sedition.”
In the second incident in Kafr Darwish village, five Christian families--19 people in total--were forced to leave their homes.
The culprits were local Muslim youths angered by what they said were Facebook posts they deemed hurtful to Islam.
A man, living in Jordan and a son of one of the displaced families, was blamed for the “blasphemous” posts, and revenge was exacted on his family and relatives in the village.
They pleaded that their son is illiterate and therefore could not have written the posts in question. But their plea went unheeded.
Unlike the first incident, the Kafr Darwish case caused an uproar on social media, mainstream media and among a minority of secular Egyptians.
In the video above, the private Egyptian channel ONTV, owned by Christian businessman Naguib Sawiris, devoted extensive coverage to the incident in Kafr Darwish.
The video shows “young extremists” attacking the homes of the Christian families. The assailants reportedly forced their will on the local authorities and police who acquiesced to their demand.
Before forcing them to leave their homes, the mayor of Kafr Darwish asked the families to pay 250,000 LE ($33,000) to appease the angry mob, according to ONTV.
In the video, an aggrieved Christian man told of how all the families now have to be crammed in one room after they were relocated for no reason. He made an appeal to Egyptian President Abd-al-Fattah al-Sisi to allow them to return to their homes.
A woman said they were given 15 minutes to leave their homes. Gushing in tears, she begged to be allowed to go home.
The governor of Bani Soueif who spoke to ONTV promised “the rule of law will prevail and the families will return home”.
In a petition addressed to Sisi, a group of Egyptian political parties, writers and human rights activists called for an immediate return of the families to their homes.
This happened: a few days later, the five families of Kafr Darwish were allowed to return home under police protection after a “reconciliation session” attended by the governor, according to the daily Al-Youm Al-Sabie.
In the video above, some members of the families were grateful that they were allowed to return home, lavishing thanks on the governor, the mayor and Muslims in the village.
Egyptian journalist Azza Kamel wrote in the daily Al-Tahrir “the forcible displacement of Copts is a disgrace for the Egyptian state, the reason being is that state agencies, mainly the security body, are complicit in it”.
Among the nine incidents of killing and displacement of Copts since 2013, Kamel wrote, one stood out as if a scene from the “Nazi” era. The incident took place in Assiut and the culprits were Salafis and fundamentalists who, according to her, wrote on the Copts’ homes “boycott the Nasara”—Arabic for Christians—an expression intended as a mark to indicate the “killing of Copts and the torching of their homes”.
Nasara, is a term with a negative connotation used by fundamentalists and radical Muslims as opposed the term masihiyin, which derives from Messiah and is perceived to be a neutral term with no baggage attached to it.
The Arabic letter nun ن , the first letter of Nasara, is usually spray-painted by supporters of the jihadist group Islamic State on the property of Christians ejected from the northern Iraqi city of Mosul which it took control of in 2014. So the symbol indicated a spread of IS- style thinking to Egypt.
Such incidents are repeatedly committed under the eye of the authorities, Kamel wrote, indicating that the interior ministry carries out “forced displacement in most cases to “impose calm and appease local Muslims.”
Radicalised Muslims are thus allowed “to emerge triumphant by committing acts of killing and burning against Christians with impunity”.