EL ARISH, Egypt — A sign above the military patrol securing the Bank of Egypt in this small town in the northern Sinai Peninsula announces the official opening of “The House of Shariah Law” near the marketplace downtown.
Local residents waiting for the Salafist cleric-turned-judge crowd the makeshift court on the second floor of the bank.
The uprising last year that toppled President Hosni Mubarak left the Sinai with almost no government authority, so Salafist clerics with their strict and puritanical interpretation of Islam have moved into the vacuum. They have established dozens of Shariah courts in an attempt to replace tribal tribunals that have long served as alternatives to government courts.
“We are fulfilling a community need which the government, at the moment, isn’t capable of fulfilling,” said Sheik Asaad el Beik, the Salafist judge who officially opened his Shariah court in November. “There has been no police or judiciary presence since the revolution. If anything, we are filling this gap.”
For decades, the Sinai Peninsula’s Bedouin tribes have refused to take their cases to official government courts. Tribal leaders, known as sheiks, ran what they called “customary courts,” where the largely feared wise men decided guilt and punishment.
No charge for court costs
Some in the Sinai have started to shun those tribunals as too expensive and too corrupt. The Islamic courts are free of charge to plaintiffs and defendants alike. Court costs usually are paid by the judge or covered by donations.
“The Islamic law courts proved to be fair and honest. Ninety percent of the residents are turning away from the corrupt customary courts and resorting to Shariah courts,” said Abu Bilal, a 34-year-old Bedouin waiting for a judge in an assault case against a neighbor in El Sheikh Zwayyed, a town 20 miles from el Arish.
“The customary courts failed to maintain their reputation because there was money involved. There are tribal judges that are known for taking bribes disguised as gifts for their efforts as judges,” he said.
“This community wants the full application of Islamic laws. The Salafist and jihadist sheiks started these courts, and we hope the government takes them as an example.”
But some tribal leaders, who for decades imposed law and order in the mountainous peninsula, say the Shariah courts are neither legitimate nor effective.
“Our courts have been resolving the community’s issues and disputes for decades and will never be replaced,” said a powerful tribal leader and customary court judge named Abdalla Jahama.
“The people trust the tribal judges and will continue to accept their judgment and wisdom when it comes to resolving local disputes,” said Sheik Jahama, a Sinai member of parliament and chairman of the Sinai Fighters Association, an association of resistance fighters formed after the latest war with Israel in 1973.
Unlike the Shariah court judge, Sheik Jahama’s docket remains empty.
While the tribal leaders and the Salafist clerics disagree on who should fill the vacuum left by the government, they agree that the official court system is a disaster.