The marginalized suburbs and rural districts of Egypt are not just corridors or roads to homes, they are much more. They represent the link of social relations between neighbors and the complexly unique relationships and blood-ties that result from marriage. Increases in population and the absence of local systems of arbitration, however, threaten the social safety and security of these communities, bringing them close to the brink of collapse into the slums and marginalized suburbs dominated by social violence. Tarek has chosen to address this problem by developing a comprehensive local arbitration structure to address street violence at its inception. The designed structure includes the selection of natural leaders as well as a participatory training program for local arbitrators. The training includes conflict resolution and regulation strategies as well as various skills for the management of reconciliation agreements.
Using the experience he has gleaned from field work and as an official mediator (lawyer) between spouses in two low-income areas, Tarek has developed an alternative, community-based system of arbitration. Within this alternative system, Tarek has also developed a comprehensive, participatory-based training program for the local arbitrators in which they are taught about conflict resolution and regulation as well as various skills necessary in the management of reconciliation agreements.
Traditionally, the elected mayors of rural areas and the Sheikh El Hara (in urban districts) would be the informal litigation authorities in resolving local conflicts. Even though this was an informal role, the verdicts they handed out were respected because they (the sheikhs) were respected within the community. This informal role has disappeared as the elected mayors have gradually shifted to being governmental employees, a shift that resulted in lost credibility and a severance of social ties with the informal system of arbitration. The loss of the informal litigation authorities combined with the anonymity of urbanization has left a space that needs to be filled as people have been left with no local means for conflict resolution – the formal system of litigation is not easily accessible, slow and expensive. Most of the conflicts that emerge could have been solved if properly addressed at the early stages, a move which would prevent many conflicts from erupting into violence and crime.
Tarek is not only reinventing but also modifying a local arbitrators’ structure that was traditionally used in the absence of a locally acceptable system of local arbitrators to end street and family conflicts in rural and poor urban areas. Tarek’s local arbitration structure is composed of respected local natural leaders who will seek to resolve conflicts at their inception, thereby restoring peace and safety on the streets while strengthening communal bonds.
The uniqueness of Tarek’s model stems from the restoration of a communal sense of ownership and responsibility. Tarek has developed a system through which natural leaders are initially selected, later elected, by each neighborhood as local arbitrators. The selection process of the leaders guarantees that they are not only trustworthy but also respected and appreciated by the community which they will serve. In a participatory manner that builds on traditional ethics and values, these leaders follow a model designed by Tarek that emphasizes a set of rules, regulations and a system for conflict resolution and the maintenance of peace and harmony, particularly in the low-income suburbs and slums. These leaders serve as community, neighborhood and street intermediaries who prevent crime and resolve conflicts at their inception. Tarek’s aim is for the state to adopt his model and eventually replace the current “committees” that are ineffective in reducing violence.
In recent years the levels of violence have increased as the security on Egypt’s streets has decreased. Tarek believes that this is the result of the withdrawal of the state from their security role as well as an increase in the growth of large, illegal squatter settlements to un-proportioned levels. Traditionally marginalized slums and poor populations in Egypt have been characterized by a social and ethical fabric where unique and rather complex relationships and social ties of blood and neighborly ethos are present. Such ties and ethos create a societal- and community-based umbrella of social norms and values that have typically protected the community’s inhabitants and led to self discipline and security. With the emergence of squatter areas, characterized by the absence of social networks, lack of traditional societal norms, violence has increased to very high levels.
The majority of street crimes, a symptom of social violence, are the result of simple disputes that could be easily and entirely avoided with the creation of a systemic mechanism through which conflict could be dealt with from the beginning, cutting off future complications. There are loopholes in the connection between the citizens, their state and the law, resulting in the absence of a direct strategy to control the violence and arbitrate conflicts in the streets and suburbs. It is the lack of a strategy that further complicates the problem and threatens the security and safety of the people within the low-income communities.
According to a statistic published in 1998, 5000 violent episodes occurred in Egypt with 70 per cent of them occurring in the squatter slums. Another study showed that in squatter settlements, up to 71 per cent of violent acts are acts of domestic violence, particularly when the husband abuses his wife. This study also highlighted that nearly 15.7 per cent of acts of domestic violence result in death – women are more vulnerable to abuse, especially those coming from marginalized, poor families with histories of unorganized dispute resolution due to the absence of alternative mechanisms for settling conflicts and arguments. Moreover, poor districts are rife with simple disagreements that unfortunately escalate and often times result in murder. It is the role of the intermediary arbitrator to act as a referee in these situations, ensuring the resolution of problems and increasing levels of community safety. The pronounced and defined accidents and crimes are the visible tip of an iceberg that many people overlook. Tarek recognized that violence is a problem that, just like the tip of the iceberg, only appears to be small.
Social violence, particularly violence perpetuated by private, non-criminal or juvenile individuals, which emerges in the absence of a proper system through which the initial conflicts could be resolved ultimately leads to more complex cases which may eventually become real crimes and murders. Murder crimes which as a result of a neighborly disagreement over a parking space, or a young man who kills a colleague over a supposed $10 debt, demonstrate the irregularity of violent acts as well as how the hazardous, risky, and often falsely-directed anger may be directed against peaceful members of a society, community, or neighborhood.
The major reason behind the eruption of such violence is the absence of a direct and rapid resolution of conflicts between individuals before they have a chance to escalate and become a risk to public security. Cairo saw the emergence of a large number of slums during a thirty year period when the population increased from 4.6 million (1975) to 11 million (2005). Statistical information points to the existence of over 1200 random illegal squatter settlements in Egypt with 12 to 15 million inhabitants, 67 of which are found in the city of Cairo alone. (2) The problem is further magnified by economic hardship and limited social and cultural exposure, which causes stifling rates of unemployment, illiteracy and population density in these areas. Moreover, the absence of a viable state-sponsored system of arbitration and police security puts an additional burden on the society through the creation of a chaotic environment.
Tarek’s idea for a local system of arbitration is new and has not been addressed in this manner before. There does exist a similar governmental initiative, “Conflict Resolution Committees,” which also highlights the use of arbitration. This program, however, has not proven to be successful – the arbitrators are chosen by national security and police forces rather than the community, removing the aspect of credibility and respect found in Tarek’s model. It is this credibility and respect that set Tarek’s model apart from all others while giving it a standing and status of a never-before tried program. Another model, used by other CSOs, has been used to create a link between the inhabitants of a community and the state through the development and election of street committees.
Tarek’s idea stands apart from these programs because they do not seek to create a local structure for alternative arbitration and conflict resolution.
In 2006 Tarek has started his work by joining the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance (CEWLA). Tarek’s work with CEWLA led him to work on personal status litigation that supported low-income and uneducated women in learning about and protecting their legal rights. Within the same year of joining the organization, Tarek developed a project that established legal and psychological consultation offices in seven governorates: Cairo, Alexandria, Giza, Kena, Aswan, Assuit, and Sohag. The project objectives for his CEWLA project included the establishment of 32 legal and social consultation offices and training 64 lawyers and 32 social workers. Later, in 2007, he founded a CSO called “Community Development Association of El Kom El Ahmr” in his home town. This CSO monitors violence within the community in addition to studying and analyzing the causes.
Tarek learned a lot through his work with both CEWLA and “Community Development Association of El Kom El Ahmr” (CDA of El Kom El Ahmr). The CDA helped Tarek recognize that there was an increase in violence within Cairo’s streets and it was his work with CEWLA that had provided him with the training to understand that many of the criminal and litigation cases brought to the courts as a result of violence could have been resolved if initial arbitration and alternative, community-based, conflict resolution mechanisms had been present at the origin of the problem. Tarek then took his realizations a step further – he created an arbitration committee and identified respected public figures and leaders in the area to help in resolving simple conflicts at their inception. The rationale behind his decision to use respected public figures and leaders stemmed from his work with CEWLA: he had realized that for his idea to spread and have a sustainable impact, he had to rely on local solutions and not just projects. He then commenced in designing a training module to be used in the identification and training of local arbitrators elected by the community and, moreover, recognized by the state as an alternative system of conflict resolution at the street level. The training module he designed covers different models and laws of social and physiological aspects of conflict resolution as well as other skills necessary for arbitration. This training module is a work in progress as he edits it after learning what does and does not work.
Tarek did not cease his work with the initial selection of leaders for arbitration or with the development of the training module. He has continued his work through collaboration with the natural leaders of marginalized slums and areas where his arbitration structure is being used. He examines the information collected, analyzing it for performance, arbitrator and community needs and the impact on arbitration participators after intervention. Tarek has also completed analytical work beneficial to this process through his work with CEWLA – he has dealt with more than 200 conflicts covering topics such as inheritance and neighborly disputes and family cases. In each case he encounters, Tarek works to reach a satisfactory solution for all parties involved before taking legal action which may benefit one party over another.
By July 2007, Tarek had secured and trained 40 arbitrators that were selected based on his program goals and objectives. Additionally beneficial to the program is that these arbitrators also happen to be trusted, professional law practitioners. The leaders were nominated and elected by a group of CSOs that he has regular contact with. Pulling these contacts together has formed the basis of a network that will continue to grow as the program expands. Following the selection process, Tarek designed a map for the target districts/slums that showed the distribution of the appropriate arbitrators for each street. He also worked with the Ministry of Internal Affairs to design a protocol of cooperation and networking between the government people and the arbitrators.
Tarek has a multi-layered plan for consolidating and expanding his program over the next couple of years. During his first year as an Ashoka Fellow, Tarek will work through CDA in El Kom el Ahmr. He plans on consolidating and building upon the experimental local arbitrator system he began two years ago. He will continue to work with community leaders in the identification and training of more arbitrators. Tarek will also document his experiences in an effort to demonstrate the feasibility of the program as well as the impact on the reduction of violence. This year will also be used to finalize and polish a set of manuals that describe his alternative local arbitration structure. The set of manuals will have three volumes: the first covers a general “How to Replicate this Model,” while the second and third, training arbitrators and training CSO staff, respectively, are a little more specific. Used in conjunction with each other, these manuals will be used to spread the local arbitrator structure and train the people to work the model.
Also within this first year, Tarek plans on using his work in El Kom el Ahmr as a starting point to spread the program to other Egyptian cities. As the chairman of “Community Development,” Tarek will network the arbitrators and pool their combined experiences to facilitate the spread of the program. He will continue networking with the Ministry of Internal Affairs as well as national security parties to finalize the aforementioned cooperation protocol. During this time, Tarek will continue to rely on volunteer arbitrators as his system gains recognition.
It is important to highlight that Tarek’s idea will spread the same way it was initially founded – through stable, local CDAs. By working with local organizations that already command a certain level of respect from the communities, Tarek is giving the system of locally-based alternative arbitration an air of legitimacy that he could not have achieved by blindly entering a community. Basically, the spread of Tarek’s idea is taking place through already developed and respected channels. The continuation, sustainability and maintenance of his system of arbitration is the result of well-earned respect within the community that comes from having a credible and transparent organization/system.
Over the next three years, Tarek plans on monitoring and documenting the work of the arbitrators and analyzing the information gleaned to measure the impact of the work. He will look specifically at the number of communications with the police as a solid way to evaluate the role and impact of arbitrator influence in each case of conflict resolution. Additionally, Tarek will continue with the documentation of the program. He will also use the media to assist in spreading his system to marginalized slums and suburbs, highlights different approaches that are “success stories” from the initial years of program implementation. These stories of success will highlight the system success as well as the impact of the local arbitration system.
By his fifth year, Tarek will be ready to move the program to Upper Egypt and rural districts where he will continue to spread his system. Tarek also has plans to have established an “Association of Arbitrators” that will act as a pressure force in the recognition and legitimacy of street intermediary arbitrators. The combination of program growth and the “Association of Arbitrators” will hopefully allow Tarek to have reached out to nearly 25 million people in poor, marginalized suburbs and slums from various squatter areas and suburbs all over Egypt.
In fostering the spread of his idea, Tarek is seeking governmental recognition and hoping that they will adopt elements of his idea into their program. Tarek’s alternative method of arbitration is not meant to replace the governmental model currently in place, nor he is expecting the government to completely take over, a move that would undermine the credibility of the system. Tarek’s strategy for the spread of the program includes governmental recognition for the program so that the decisions made in local arbitration have legal standing and are legal agreements that will be able to withstand judicial scrutiny in a court setting should a problem not be completely solved through the local system.
Tarek was born in a marginalized poor village, one of the villages of Giza. Tarek is married and has two children. He is a talented actor, a skill that led him to join the school theater when he was younger. His interests growing up included the theater that he participated in as well as public and social affairs. It was this second interest that led him to later attend the Faculty of Law where he graduated with good grades. In his free time, Tarek enjoys writing fiction and drama, keeping in-line with his youthful passion for theater.
Tarek’s thinking skills span to the analytical and structural – a style of thinking he acquired at a young age. He is known to study a problem from all angles so that the solutions and interpretations he develops take all relevant information into account. Tarek’s involvement in CEWLA and “Kom El Ahmr CDA” are demonstrative of his interest in culture and society, interests that have led him to a strong opinion, even stronger arguments, and passion in the belief for societal growth and improvement. This entrepreneurial man looks up to Gamal Abd El Nasr, a former Egyptian president. It is El Nasr’s leadership qualities that cause Tarek to see him as a mentor and admire his success in prompting development and fighting for the rights of poor people. As stated above, it was after joining CEWLA in 2006 that Tarek saw an increase in violence in Cairo and recognized that most of these acts of violence would have been resolved if there had been a system of arbitration available. He considered alternative mechanisms for conflict resolution and spent the next year developing the CSO “Kom El Ahmr CDA” founded in 2007. Tarek marks the founding of this organization as the turning point in his life in which he realized the crucial importance of resolving local and neighborhood disputes as well as the further impact of peace promotion and communal harmonization. Tarek has also created the Arab Drama Forum with his colleagues. This forum provided an outlet for students to continue participating in public activities that were cultural and social in nature.
It was the combination of Tarek’s life experiences that built the strong systematic thinking he uses daily. He credits all of these experiences as making him more analytical and critical while also presenting him with a broader horizon, opening up the fields of development and law. He chose to specialize in human rights and society development, areas of expertise that have served him well not only in his work with CEWLA but also in the development and implementation of his developmental programs.
Tarek’s main obstacle with his program is the multi-faceted issue related to funding. He has been working hard to secure and provide adequate funding not only for the training of the arbitrators but also the training of the trainers. His funding goes to the training sessions, the material preparation, coordinating with the concerned parties and the actual implementation of his idea in the targeted areas. Tarek has managed to tackle this obstacle by going to training sessions related to fundraising and focusing on fundraising within his first year of action. He believes that Ashoka will help him access donors and will provide him with space and time to focus on consolidating and spreading his idea.