02/19/2014 11:04 am ET Updated Apr 19, 2014

With the Fixed Presence of the Military, It's Time to Focus More on Grassroots, Community-Based Restorative Justice Initiatives in Egypt

It should come as no surprise that the Egyptian military has continued to be actively involved in steering the ongoing events in Egypt so that they play out in its favour. Make no mistake, however; this is no sudden shift from a more hands-off approach to one of direct participation in political affairs. Instead, the Egyptian military only slides between a private, clandestine guidance of political decisions and policy-making--or allowance of others' decisions that don't obstruct their own goals--and a more public display of their involvement in Egyptian politics. The military and state police are nonetheless ever-present, with vast business interests that require holding on to power--even if by proxy from time-to-time--whether hidden from public view or else for all to see whenever this serves their purposes or enhances their brand.

A recent correspondence that I had with public intellectual and political commentator, Noam Chomsky, served to confirm my suspicions: the Egyptian military isn't going anywhere any time soon, and when it comes to sectarian violence on the ground, there's little precedent to suggest that they should be trusted to offer fair and sustainable resolutions. The consistent strand that runs through the Obama administration's dealings with Egypt is their prolongation of close relations with its military, a policy they extended during the Mubarak era, preserved under the Morsi regime, and maintains still today in the aftermath of the June 30th demonstrations.

Indeed, my discussion with Chomsky also corroborated my conviction that the Egyptian military's dogged monopolization of power for expanding its economic empire has been a major contributor to the current instability in Egypt. Naturally, therefore, the military won't simply sit back and let the much more unpredictable democratic ideals flourish in Egypt unfettered or the meandering path of social change chart its course without supplemental "guidance."

And, although the Egyptian supporters of El-Sisi's so-called transitional roadmap have repeatedly decried the supposedly shoddy and misinformed coverage by the Western media of events since the removal of Morsi, Chomsky further affirmed my misgivings about this type of critique--even despite his well-known censure of the corporate media's propagandistic "filters" that "manufacture consent," as it were. The brutality of the Egyptian military against peaceful demonstrators and inhumane incarceration conditions in Egypt indeed warrants the Western media's sustained scrutiny and denunciation, which also reflects some of the most damning critiques emerging from within Egypt too.

Given that the objectives and ambitions of the Egyptian military and state police under the Ministry of Interior are far removed from the everyday struggles of average Egyptians, there are few signs that they can be relied upon or offer sustainable solutions from the top-down when violence strikes. In the case of sectarian violence between Copts and Muslims, the military and state police are either slow to respond, incompetent (often on purpose), unfair in its handling of the situation in the moment and the aftermath, and offer little more than punitive or retributive measures that only aggravate the violence.

And, while the attempts to mediate state-run reconciliation meetings have usually been met with dismissive scoffs by locals, the typically more vulnerable Copts are seemingly left with no viable alternative to the state security apparatuses for their protection and the execution of "justice," despite their abysmal track record.

Case in point: when clashes broke out in the village of Dahshur in the summer of 2012, "The security forces reportedly gained control of the town, but reconciliation attempts ... failed as the two parties refuse to resolve the issue." In this infamous incident, "12 armored vehicles besiege[d] a street no wider than 300 meters and no longer than 600 meters" when the sectarian violence persisted over the course of five days.

In response, Morsi assigned "Giza Governor Ali Abdel Rahman to form a committee to assess the damage resulting from the incident and to work on achieving reconciliation between the residents of the village," but the Shura Council decided against forming a fact-finding committee. Indeed, such examples as this indifference by Egypt's upper chamber has led to a recent report by Human Rights Watch, in which they recommended steps be taken to properly investigate clashes between Muslims and Copts and the failure of the military and police to intervene. The reaction of local residents to the steps that actually were taken, however, was--not unexpectedly--a mixture of well-founded skepticism and a desire for harsher punishments.

This response is telling for a few reasons: it shows that Egyptians generally don't trust state security apparatuses and mediatory initiatives, primarily because outsiders are parachuted in to deal with the conflict and therefore don't have any stake in its resolution or show any reason that they can be trusted. Further, the desperation that such an undependable mechanism produces in those who are affected by sectarian violence means that there is an over-reliance on ineffective and counterproductive punitive measures and retributive justice--either through state institutions or vigilantism.

The unreliability and insular priorities of the military and state police in Egypt, the ineffectiveness of state operated reconciliation meetings and dubious "fact"-finding committees, and the dependence on retributive and punitive measures to arrive at some semblance of "justice" suggest that new more viable and creative alternatives are needed. Grassroots, community-based restorative justice initiatives fit the bill.

Such holistic and community-run initiatives include the following benefits:

  1. Local communities don't have to wait for the authorization of distant and indifferent high-level officials to prevent or resolve sectarian conflicts;
  2. It isn't necessary to place one's confidence in an untrustworthy state police apparatus to intervene;
  3. There is no need to rely on generally ineffective punitive measures or retributive forms of "justice" to create sustainable social change and the conditions for a durable peace.

The more creative restorative justice programs that ensure the direct involvement of the victim, offender, and wider community are demonstrably more effective at lowering recidivism rates and increasing satisfaction rates among victims, as study after study shows. Just as importantly, however, these initiatives also help to alleviate the anxieties, frustration, and pessimism that Egyptians experience when state security apparatuses leave their fingerprints all over the fallout from sectarian violence.

Since restorative justice programs are community-based and operate outside of the traditional adversarial justice system, the local community is allowed direct oversight of the reconciliation process and manner of restitution. This important dynamic ensures that a sense of dignity and personal confidence is restored among those affected by sectarian violence. And, as the participants are from the local community, there is a greater likelihood of building trust and forging meaningful long-term relationships that are vital for genuinely resolving and/or preventing violence.

If, for example, the local imam and priest of the village seize leadership responsibilities in the mediation process between the victim and offender, this too restores dignity and gives the local community a sense of control over the direction and shape of the resolution. And, when local religious leaders personally supervise the fact-finding efforts and oversee the mutually decided-upon method of restitution, this in-house and collaborative management of affairs likewise builds trust, relationships, and confidence in the effectiveness of the mediation process. Just as importantly, this community-based, grassroots approach promotes a more holistic understanding of justice as repairing a harm that's been committed and "making things right" again rather than relying on ineffective and incendiary punishments that promote fragmentation, fear, and prolonged mutual suspicion in the local community.

Further, the mutually decided-upon manner of restitution can also be tailored in such a way that the victim and offender (or their respective supporters) can collaborate on a shared undertaking for the benefit of the whole community. This can, for example, include initiatives that further local education or repair physical infrastructure whose dilapidated state has been a source of frustration for some members of the local community. Here are examples of trust- and relationship-building processes that also fill a need and work toward authentic social change as the condition for a sustainable peace.

The research and interviews that I conducted in Egypt in December of 2012 during the brief period nestled ominously between Morsi's controversial constitutional declaration and the referendum on the polarizing Islamist-leaning constitution--when the fear of civil war first emerged--included discussions I had with village-level "peace committees" whose purpose it was to intervene in local sectarian conflicts. I also sat in on a very encouraging mediation training seminar for Coptic priests that regularly take place at the Anafora retreat centre under the direction of Bishop Thomas of El-Qussia and Mair Diocese. I also interviewed several bright young Muslims and Copts who participated in the peace program of El-Ekhlas Coptic Development Organization, a community-based organization that offers grassroots level solutions to poverty, insufficient education, and sectarian conflict for local villagers in El-Fashn.

Such experiences and many others like them have convinced me that the infrastructure, personal will, and leadership is in place--if greater attention is given to collaboration, coordination, and information-sharing--for the implementation of more community-based restorative justice programs in Egypt to address sectarian violence without the need for reliance on state security apparatuses.

When top-down "solutions" from the Egyptian government, military, or state police seem out of reach or otherwise too fickle to rely on, making space for a community to band together and take matters into their own hands through grassroots restorative justice initiatives is a far more reliable--even if imperfect--way to create the necessary conditions for a sustainable peace in Egypt between Copts and Muslims.

For more information on the concept of restorative justice and the types of programs that could be implemented in a village setting to address sectarian conflict, please make use of the following resources:

"What is Restorative Justice?" Centre for Justice and Reconciliation

Restorative Justice "Lecture Hall": Centre for Justice and Reconciliation

"A Manual to Facilitate Conversations on Religious Peacebuilding and Reconciliation" - by David Steele

"Restorative Justice in the Islamic Penal Law: A Contribution to the Global System" - by Mutaz M. Qafisheh

"The Effectiveness of Restorative Justice Practices: A Meta-Analysis" - By Jeff Latimer, Craig Dowden, and Danielle Muise

Restorative Justice Library: Centre for Justice and Reconciliation