The Sinai, often described as restive and lawless, is actually not lawless at all. The region is ruled by two kinds of law – Egyptian government law and Bedouin tribal law.
In this sparsely populated triangle of land, Egyptians are outnumbered by Bedouins. And Bedouins are a powerful force. They don’t have to abide by the law of the government and they don’t have to abide by the law of the tribes. Bedouins are allowed to, in most cases, choose.
While this sounds like an advantage for the Bedouins, Hemaid, a member of the Muzeina tribe in the South Sinai, doesn’t see it this way. “We’re stuck in between,” he says.
I didn’t know much about Bedouin tribal law in the South Sinai until Hemaid began to talk to me about this topic on one of my regular morning visits with him in his arisha, where we sit on the ground with his male family and friends and sip coffee and tea. During these visits Hemaid will talk to me in free form on a large array of topics such as Bedouin education, the tribal sense of community and sense of belonging to each other as well as his own perspective on life, flowing from one subject to the next as he smokes, pours tea and answers phone calls.
Bedouins do have a choice as to which law to follow, but this choice can produce conflict for them. “Which law are you going to use?” Hemaid asks. “If you want to use the government law, you’re not respecting the tribal law. You will have trouble with the Bedouins. If you don’t do the government law you have to be following the tribal law always. It’s not fair.”
Bedouin tribal law in the South Sinai is not clear cut and many Bedouins don’t understand it, Hemaid says. “In tribal law you cannot know anything.” Its rules don’t seem to be rigidly defined. Any Bedouin man can be put in charge of a case. For example, if two people have a problem with each other, they might go to Hemaid’s house and give him control of the situation. Then Hemaid becomes a de facto judge and his home becomes a courthouse.
In Bedouin court there are a number of ways to win a case. You can rely on witnesses to testify that you are right. You can swear on the Quran to prove you are telling the truth. Another option is touching your tongue to fire. If the fire burns you, it means you are lying. If it doesn’t burn you, you are telling the truth.
Once a decision is reached, it may not be the end of the matter. The fathers of the people involved have the final say. “Any deal I make with you, my father can cancel it,” Hemaid says. “My father can change all this.”
Two powerful and distinct systems of law existing side by side simultaneously in one region is not a formula for a good security situation. Hemaid believes it would be best if the government would allow the region to administer only the tribal form of law. “If the government would not have law and only tribes would have law, everything would be okay. I think the government has to let people use the tribal law and not their law.”
In this video, Hemaid speaks more about Bedouin tribal law in the South Sinai.
Written by Connect the Cultures founder, Sabina Lohr