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.
“We are a conservative community, and we started those courts to satisfy the community needs,” said Sheik Azzam Sinjer, who leads an Islamic courthouse in El Sheikh Zwayyed. “The government never offered us a convenient solution.”
Swift, cheap justice
Sheik Beik said the public resorted to his court because it is faster and more efficient than government courts, which could take years and cost thousands of dollars to resolve a case as simple as a divorce or a car accident.
“How do you expect someone, who is poor and too sick to travel, to pay expenses they cannot afford and wait months or years for their cases to be resolved?” said Sheik Jahama.
Some say the official courts perverted their mission.
“We never saw justice under Hosni Mubarak’s 30 years of government. All we saw was brutality and trumped-up charges,” said one Bedouin who is a fugitive and declined to be named.
The Bedouin was sentenced to 25 years in 2007 over charges of illegally crossing the border into Israel, attacking military patrols and trafficking weapons. He is one of dozens of prisoners set free in January 2011, after some opponents of Mubarak attacked more than 90 police stations and a dozen jails across the country.
In the months that followed his release, he thought he was to receive a pardon from the Egyptian government. After turning himself in, he was detained and sent back to prison, but his cousins ambushed a prison transport convoy and set him free again.
“The tribes witnessed what hundreds of us suffered in the name of the former regime’s justice,” he said. “How do you expect anyone to trust such a government?”
Analysts say it is critical that the Egyptian government build trust and get the Sinai Peninsula under control, especially in light of increasing militancy and violence such as an attack in early August that left 16 Egyptian border guards dead.
“There is no real authority over Sinai because of the poor policies of the government. It escalated after the revolution because of the security gap the whole country is experiencing,” said Gen. Mohamed Okasha, a military analyst and former air force pilot.
“If the Egyptian government does not [create a plan to develop the region], we will lose the Sinai Peninsula forever. We can expect worse attacks and deeper security issues than what we already experienced.”