Monday, March 18, 2013

Not A Lynch Mob

 A recent report of rural justice has seized the imaginations of news organisations all over the world, most of whom are carrying on about "vigilantes in Egypt" and lynch mobs. This is rubbish to be quite short about it, and I really wish that people who write articles about us would bother to find out something about the situation as it really is.

The hard fact of the matter is that the "rural" areas of Egypt are full of so-called "villages" of anywhere from 5 to 100 thousand or more inhabitants and these "villages" have no legal municipal governments, no local authorities, no services from the central government...basically little or no support from the central government, who generally knows about as much about them as do the idiotic writers of these ill-informed articles. Most urban Egyptians harbour a secret fear of the rural Egyptians and are hesitant to venture out into the wilds of the countryside. As I have found living in this amazingly misunderstood environment, the facts of life out here are simply different from city life but no less fact, I believe they are in many respects more so.

The incident in Samanod, a "village" in the Delta about 90 km north of Cairo that has so captured the imagination of the world press and led (naturally) to a vivid portrayal of Egypt as collapsing into gang warfare and vigilantes was that a couple of men were preying on tuktuk (motorised rickshaws) drivers, stealing the tuktuks, abducting school girls and so on. These men from a neighbouring village (as is generally the case since one doesn't foul one's own nest) were captured by the villagers where the actions were taking place, were beaten severely and then hung by their feet. They subsequently died from the beatings.

To speak from my own experience, when a thief is caught in one of the villages here it is in fact customary to hang him by his feet at his front door to allow his neighbours to witness his shame and identification as a thief. If a beating accompanies this punishment, it is rarely sufficient even to cause a doctor's attention. The punishment is the public shaming and it tends to be quite efficient, especially as it alerts everyone to who the thieves among them is. I haven't heard of women being punished in this fashion. In the city, if a theft occurs the victim is lucky to get a response of any kind from the police (who aren't even present in the first place in rural areas) and if the thief is caught and can't buy his way out of trouble, he will likely be beaten, spend some time in jail awaiting trial, and if found guilty spend more time in jail afterwards. Egyptian jails being what they are, I would think that an hour or so spent hanging upside down being embarrassed in front of one's neighbours is the far more attractive option.

My area is between the edge of Giza at Nazlit Semman, that unsavoury neighbourhood next to the Sphinx, and the next so-called "village" of Abu Sir that houses roughly 40 thousand souls. Our local authority is a highly respected older man who is one of my neighbours, a gentleman in his 60's with white hair and bright blue eyes, who in a Harris tweed could pass for an Irish farmer. Haj Abdou is quite a character. When I had an issue with a housekeeper who decided to liberate some money from me, I consulted with him and he called a meeting with me, the housekeeper and her mother which resulted in the prompt return of my funds.  1000% better service than any of the urban police and no one was beaten or hung upside down.  Shortly after the revolution a gang from Abu Sir was stealing electronics from shops on Pyramids Road in Giza, sending in one member to case the place, another to steal a jeep from somewhere and they would hit the store at night loading the jeep with their goodies and heading back to Abu Sir through the desert from the area at the end of the Moneeb. One night the army was moving tanks through the desert so they dodged out onto the asphalt road just north of us only to be stopped by one of the security patrols watching traffic by a campfire at night, as was the custom during those confusing days.  As they were unknown and unwilling to identify themselves or their reason for being in the area, the car was searched, the loot discovered and they spent the day tied up next to the wall of the omda's home next to their stolen jeep waiting for someone from the army to come to pick them up. Compared to the treatment of my saddlemaker who found himself in a military prison for asking for a death certificate for his brother than included the gunshot wound (courtesy of the military/CSF) that he actually died of rather than the accidental death listed, this was a pretty good deal.

Last night a visitor and I were driving home from a neighbour's place after dinner about 9 pm and I noticed that the areas of the roads that were not immediately lit and inhabited were completely empty. This was not the case a few years ago. Rural settlements are in small clumps in many parts and the people are used to visiting after dark, since they are working in fields during the day, but not any more. They will walk to the homes of friends or family or use a tuktuk if the distance is very far.  My staff tell me of gangs who are abducting women from tuktuks (the usual mode of transport in the countryside being cheap and plentiful), of tuktuk drivers being beaten or murdered for possession of their vehicle (current value new about LE 20 thou), and other problems in the darkened isolated areas away from the main villages.  Many don't venture out after dark at all and they all resent this enormously. When I announced that I was going out  to my neighbours for a 6  pm dinner to arrive home about 9 pm, they wanted me to bring my Great Dane to protect me on the road. Since the neighbours are cat people and Mindy isn't the best with cats, I pointed out that it wasn't a great idea and that it wasn't so far, but they were not pleased.

While in an optimal world incidents such as that in Samanod wouldn't happen at all, the fact that the villagers took their justice themselves isn't that remarkable. The fact that they would have to is sad...but that has been the way in rural Egypt for millenia. Most issues are decided by the elders and omdas, and the solutions are generally just registered with the police for public record. Perhaps when the rural areas of Egypt are really considered part of the country and not a foreign environment things will change a bit.

copyright 2013 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani