The Middle East Channel

Islamic justice in the Sinai

Justice comes slowly to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, and sometimes not at all. In August 2012, local security officials announced that they were searching for 120 militants wanted on charges of attacking police stations and killing 16 Egyptian soldiers at a military post near the border with Israel. Six months later, they’re still looking. Police are ...


Justice comes slowly to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, and sometimes not at all. In August 2012, local security officials announced that they were searching for 120 militants wanted on charges of attacking police stations and killing 16 Egyptian soldiers at a military post near the border with Israel. Six months later, they’re still looking. Police are few and far between, and those who do patrol the streets are increasingly the victims of the same crimes they are trying to prevent. Police cars are hijacked in broad daylight while officers are gunned down by masked assailants in a climate of brazen banditry and lawlessness that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu famously described as "a kind of Wild West."

The 23,500 square mile Sinai desert has long been a sanctuary for militant Islamist groups and smugglers operating along Egypt’s porous border with the embargoed Gaza Strip. But despite their strategic significance, the two governorates of North and South Sinai are among Egypt’s poorest and most politically marginal, accorded a mere four seats each in the 508-member People’s Assembly. Decades of neglect and economic discrimination by the central government have fueled resentment among the Bedouin tribes that account for around 70 percent of the Sinai’s 500,000 residents. It is estimated that only 10 percent of the Bedouins are formally employed, and one out of every four does not possess a government ID card. Their many grievances — including legal obstacles to land ownership, lack of basic public services, job discrimination, and systematic exclusion from military and police academies — have reinforced a climate of mutual distrust between the central government and the Sinai.

A natural incubator for economic and political unrest, the Sinai is increasingly taking on the characteristics of a breakaway state playing by its own rules in the security vacuum left behind by the disintegration of former President Hosni Mubarak’s police state. As one Sinai resident described the abrupt withdrawal of security forces in the early days of the uprising, "The police left the city on January 29, 2011 at 4 p.m. heading to Cairo and never came back."

Deteriorating security conditions have made the Sinai a magnet for drug and arms dealers. While Egypt’s formal economy is in a tailspin, a multi-million dollar black market in trafficked goods — ranging from stolen organs to hashish to surface-to-air missiles — is quietly thriving in the hundreds of tunnels linking Sinai to Gaza. This underground economy has brought much-needed revenue to one of Egypt’s poorest regions, but with it has come an unwelcome wave of crime and rising extremism. Since the revolution, the Sinai has seen 14 different attacks on the pipeline supplying natural gas to Israel and Jordan and many more carjackings, armed assaults, attacks on military and police property, and most recently a foiled bomb plot apparently targeting a church in Rafah.

President Mohamed Morsi’s government has confiscated weapons shipments in the Sinai and made efforts to close off some of the tunnels. But the halfhearted crackdown has failed to deter smugglers, who reportedly started reopening the tunnels as soon as Egyptian authorities withdrew. Critics of Morsi’s counter-terrorism policy have dismissed these measures as disingenuous political stagecraft aimed at reassuring the international community that Egypt’s Islamist government is taking terrorism seriously.

Meanwhile, the predominately Bedouin residents of the Sinai have grown impatient with the government’s inability to control violent crime and trafficking. Abandoned altogether by a state that had long treated them as second-class citizens, the Bedouin tribes of the Sinai have taken security matters into their own hands, administering justice through informal tribunals that rely increasingly on Islamic law. While ultraconservative Salafis complain that Egypt’s new constitution ascribes too weak a role to Sharia, the battle over the religious character of the future legal framework has spilled over into the Sinai, where Islamists are taking advantage of the legal vacuum to organize informal tribunals that are implementing their own brand of Islamic justice. The emergence of a parallel Islamic justice system rivaling its government counterpart suggests that the Sinai is slowly taking on the dimensions of an Islamic sub-state. 

According to Egyptian Judge Yussef Auf, these committees are, for the time being, a limited and experimental phenomenon. But their activities have intensified dramatically since the revolution, as the already dysfunctional state security apparatus struggles to contain rampant lawlessness. One Sharia tribunal operating in al-Arish reports that its caseload has increased eight-fold in two years. Sheikh Beek, who presides over the tribunal, estimates that it has absorbed 75 percent of the caseload once handled by Sinai’s official justice system.

Officially, the Egyptian government denies the existence of any informal or unauthorized judicial authorities. A Sinai-based judge who wished to remain anonymous said, "I have not heard of any court other than the official civil and criminal courts of the state, and if any such courts come to our attention, their administrators will be arrested and prosecuted." However, the same source expressed alarm about rising religious conservatism in the Sinai, a trend he views as a reaction both to the deterioration of physical and economic security and the exploitation of uneducated youth by Salafi ideologues.

Whether or not Egyptian officials publicly acknowledge them, the Sharia committees are an undeniable feature of Egypt’s evolving legal landscape. According to Sheikh Marei Arar, the leader of the Salafi movement in Rafah, there are at least six Sharia committees ("al-Lijan al-Sharia") currently operating in North Sinai, each staffed by around five tribal leaders known as sheikhs. Most of the sheikhs have no formal legal training, and it would be a stretch to describe the Sharia committees as "courts." Bearing little resemblance to modern courtrooms, the committees operate in unexpected places — basements and even daycare centers afterhours. But the cases they handle are just as serious as those adjudicated by the official justice system, ranging from petty theft to land disputes to murder. The corresponding punishments, drawn from Islamic jurisprudence, include "ursh dam" ("blood money" owed to a murder victim’s family), fasting periods, or fines paid in camels rather than cash.

While these punishments are relatively mild, some sheikhs say they aspire to eventually implement Islamic "hudud" — much harsher sanctions that include stoning for adulterers and amputation of hands or feet for petty thieves. For now, the Islamic committees are only as powerful as the enforceability of their rulings. Without the recognition or backing of the official justice system, how do their decisions carry any weight? Sheikh Arar explains that the Islamic committees do not rely on state authorities to implement their judgments, because they are backed up instead by customary enforcement mechanisms drawn from tribal law. "We don’t need the police," Sheikh Arar said, noting that the Sharia committees frequently rely on the traditional system of guarantors known as "kafeel" — notable tribesmen appointed to ensure the debts of the disputants — to ensure that agreements are carried out. Although he emphasizes the self-sufficiency of the committees, Sheikh Arar is working to improve relations with the police. At least one other Sinai sheikh has tried to persuade the interior ministry to let local police officers enforce Islamic rulings.

Informal dispute resolution is not new to the Sinai, but the increasingly Islamic character of tribal justice is a recent innovation. For centuries, Bedouins have resolved conflicts outside of the formal justice system through traditional courts administering tribal common law known as "urf" that have pre-Islamic origins. Historically, tribal law was not derived from Islamic jurisprudence, although almost all Bedouins identify as Muslims. The development of "urf" has been driven not by religious ideology, but by the existential necessity of formulating predictable rules to regulate disputes in the absence of any reliable central authority capable of invoking the force of the state to maintain order.

Mubarak’s government tolerated the tribal courts largely out of pragmatism, and as a way of outsourcing the administration of justice to local leaders in a region that has long regarded itself as semi-autonomous.

Against the backdrop of traditional Bedouin law, the Sharia committees administered by Sheikh Arar and other Islamists are a new phenomenon. Unlike tribal judges who typically charge fees as high as 50,000 Egyptian pounds (LE) per case to administer "urf" laws, the Sheikhs who oversee the Sharia committees do not charge for their services. In addition, the Sharia committees have a moral advantage over tribal judges, who have a reputation for accepting bribes. According to Sheikh Arar, the Sharia committees are also more efficient than their tribal or state counterparts. For all of these reasons, the Sharia committees are rapidly gaining influence.

There are at least two plausible explanations for the gradual Islamization of the tribal justice system. First, many Bedouins have become more sympathetic to Islamist ideology after years of political exclusion, discrimination, and mass incarceration under the Mubarak regime. After a series of bombings at Red Sea resorts in 2004 and 2006, Mubarak arrested thousands of Bedouins who were detained for years without ever seeing the charges against them or the inside of a courtroom. Sheikh Arar was among them. He spent eight years in prison, at one point sharing a cell with a senior official in the Muslim Brotherhood, Khairat al-Shater. Sheikh Arar remains deeply disillusioned with the corruption and opacity of the official justice system and views the Sharia committees as a much-needed alternative.

A second possible explanation for the trend toward convergence of Bedouin and Islamic law is an improvement in the historically strained relationship between Sinai tribes and Salafi groups. For decades, tribal and Salafi leaders traded allegations of co-optation by the Mubarak regime. Historically, the approximately 150 sheikhs who hold leadership positions in North Sinai were elected directly by their tribes. But under Mubarak’s rule, state security services took over control of the appointment process, and the sheikhs became essential interlocutors between the tribes and state authorities. At the same time, the Mubarak regime was also working to co-opt hard-line Salafi groups operating in the Sinai. This divide-and-conquer strategy gave the regime direct access to the region’s key powerbrokers, while simultaneously pitting them against each other. Relations between the tribes and Islamists deteriorated further after thousands of Bedouins were arrested in the aftermath of the 2004 and 2006 terrorist attacks at Red Sea resorts. The Bedouins felt they were being unjustly penalized for the crimes of a small group of radicals. Recently, tribal leaders have been the victims of Islamic extremism. After two sheikhs were killed by unidentified gunmen, reportedly after they issued public statements denouncing extremism, several tribes publicly announced that they would cooperate with state security forces on counter-terrorism measures in August 2012.

The rise of violent extremism in the Sinai may be motivating more mainstream Islamists to align with the Bedouin tribes against a common threat. Sheikh Arar insists that Islamic militants represent the most radical fringe of the Salafi movement, and in general, relations between Islamists and the tribes in the Sinai "are better than excellent." According to Arar, the Salafis have endeared themselves to the Bedouins by showing genuine concern for their economic and political grievances. The perceived integrity of Salafi clerics in contrast with the corruption and incompetence of local state authorities is one reason why residents are increasingly turning to Sharia committees to address their grievances. Even some non-Muslims view the Sharia committees as preferable to traditional courts. Sheikh Hamdeen Abu Faisal, who administers a Sharia committee in Sheikh Zuweid, claims to have overseen four cases involving Coptic Christians.

Sheikh Arar has gone to great lengths to differentiate the Sharia committees from hard-line jihadists groups of dubious authenticity, including one claiming an affiliation to al Qaeda, that have called for the restoration of an "Islamic caliphate" in the Sinai. More recently, a vigilante group calling itself the "Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice," styled after Saudi Arabia’s morality police units of the same name, distributed leaflets around North Sinai warning that the use of drugs and cigarettes violates Islamic law, and threatening "very harsh" punishments for anyone caught using illicit substances. Sheikh Arar scoffed at these reports, accusing anti-Islamists of fabricating the stories to damage the reputation of Salafis.

Former militant Abu Faisal, imprisoned and tortured after the 2004 bombings, is now a prominent Salafi leader in North Sinai. He also insists that reports of jihadist groups operating in the area are greatly exaggerated. While masked vigilantes may have a presence on the internet, evidence of their activities on the ground is quite limited. The statements and videos issued by jihadist websites, Abu Faisal said, are "just propaganda without any basis in reality." 

Both Sheikh Arar and Sheikh Abu Faisal insist that the Islamic committees are a force for justice, not extremism. But in Egypt and across the region, many fear that radicalism in the Sinai is taking on international dimensions. In early January, an anonymous Israeli official warned that hundreds of foreign jihadists have infiltrated the Sinai, following an earlier report that one of the militants killed in a recent raid near the Israeli border town of Kibbutz Barnea was a Saudi Arabian citizen. Meanwhile, a Salafi preacher in Tunisia proclaimed Sinai "the new Afghanistan." Fraternal and ideological ties between Egyptian Salafi leader Mohamed Zawhiri and his older brother, al Qaeda commander Ayman Zawahiri, have fueled fears — not entirely far-fetched — that the Sinai could become a breeding ground for domestic terror cells. On December 14, 2012, the Sinai-based Salafi Jihad group led by Mohamed Zawahiri called for a boycott of the referendum on Egypt’s draft constitution — which he deemed insufficiently Islamic — and announced that Salafis were prepared to wage jihad against secularists to achieve their non-negotiable demand for the full application of Sharia law.

The Zawahiri brothers are close to the ultraconservative Egyptian cleric Hazem Salah Abu Ismail. Abu Ismail unsuccessfully ran for president as a puritanical alternative to the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood, and has since earned a reputation for instigating violence. In a video released on October 24, 2012, Ayman Zawahiri urged Abu Ismail to launch an Islamic revolution to fulfill popular demands for "Sharia-based governance," adding that Muslims have a religious obligation to "offer victims and sacrifices until Egypt’s glory is restored." Most recently, during the constitutional referendum, his fanatical supporters known as the "Hazemoon" attacked the liberal Wafd Party’s headquarters with knives and Molotov cocktails.

While the sheikhs insist that the Sharia committees are part of the solution to Islamic extremism, their critics question whether any legal framework predicated on religion can be compatible with democratic values of tolerance and pluralism. But as long as the official justice system remains tarnished by a legacy of corruption and incompetence, the Sharia committees are here to stay. The extent to which they succeed in carving out an Islamic sub-state in the Sinai will depend on whether or not Morsi’s government can rebrand state institutions as credible guarantors of justice and security.  

Mara Revkin is a student at Yale Law School and a former Fulbright Fellow in Oman. She provides research assistance on constitutional reform for the New America Foundation’s Middle East Task Force. She can be reached at and on Twitter @MaraRevkin. Muhamed Sabry contributed reporting from North Sinai.

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