Tarek Ramadan

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 2008
This description of Tarek Ramadan's work was prepared when Tarek Ramadan was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2008.


Tarek Ramadan is deploying local “natural leaders” in rural communities and urban “squatter” neighborhoods to deliver immediate, binding mediation, thus resolving family and community disputes at their earliest stages, mitigating grievances that increasingly lead to violence. In addition, he offers participatory training in conflict resolution, regulation strategies, and management skills for drafting, recording, and enforcing reconciliation agreements.

The New Idea

Tarek is addressing accelerating rates of violence with a system of local arbitrators—called muhakim—chosen by each community for their natural authority and ability to bring calm and reason into conflict situations. He calls for the redesign of a traditional grassroots system of dispute resolution that was lost as the formal justice system of top-down courts and institutional bureaucracy supplanted community responsibility for delivering supposedly fair and impartial justice. Tarek’s idea is grounded on the inherent power of local ownership coupled with mutual responsibility and pride. He has designed a system by which a retired professional, business leader, judge, or teacher is identified and selected—and later elected—by each neighborhood to be a muhakim (mediator, informal judge, arbitrator). The muhakim operate outside the formal justice system, but their careful selection by the community ensures that they are not only trustworthy but also respected and appreciated by the community where they 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 and regulations, a system for conflict resolution, and the maintenance of peace and harmony, particularly in the low-income suburbs and slums. At its heart, Tarek is building common cause among community development agencies (CDAs) whose interests are served by serving their constituencies with a full range of local support, including safety and security. Tarek envisions the state adopting his model, eventually replacing the current “committees” that have proven ineffective in reducing violence.

The Problem

In recent years the level of violence has increased as the security on Egypt’s streets has decreased. In large measure this violence stems both from the state’s relinquishing its security role and from the unprecedented level of growth of large, illegal squatter settlements.Cairo saw the emergence of a large number of slums during a 30-year period when the population increased from 4.6 million (1975) to 11 million (2005). Statistical information points to the existence of over 1,200 illegal squatter settlements in Egypt with 12 to 15 million inhabitants; 67 of which are found in the city of Cairo alone. 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. Traditionally marginalized slums and poor populations in Egypt have been characterized by a social and ethical fabric where unique and complex relationships and social ties of blood and neighborly ethos are present. Such ties create a societal- and community-based umbrella of social norms and values that have typically protected the community’s inhabitants. However, with the appearance and accelerating growth of squatter areas—many which lack traditional social networks and societal norms—violence has become the routine “solution” for every problem large or trivial.The majority of street crimes, a symptom of social violence, are the result of simple disputes that could be easily avoided with the creation of a systemic mechanism through which conflict could be dealt with from the beginning, cutting off future complications. But a deep mistrust between citizens, their state, and the law has resulted in only further escalating violence and conflict in the streets and suburbs of low-income communities. According to reports, 70 percent of violent episodes occur in squatter slums. Another study showed that in such settlements, up to 71 percent of violent acts are acts of domestic violence; most involve a husband abusing his wife. Reports also indicate that nearly 15.7 percent of acts of domestic violence result in death. Women are most vulnerable to abuse, especially those coming from marginalized, poor families—subject to an even larger risk due to the absence of alternative mechanisms for settling conflicts and arguments. The available systems of justice—formal or informal—provide no role for an intermediary arbitrator to act as a referee in conflict situations, and facilitate the resolution of problems of all kinds. Traditionally, the elected mayors of rural areas and the Sheikh El Hara (in urban districts) would act as informal litigation authorities in resolving local conflicts; their verdicts were respected because they were respected within the community. This informal role has disappeared as elected mayors have gradually shifted to being governmental employees; a shift that has resulted in lost credibility and the severing of social ties with the informal system of arbitration.The government has attempted to institute arbitration through a program of “Conflict Resolution Committees.” This program, however, has become only another element in the chaotic system: The arbitrators are chosen by national security and police forces rather than by the community, negating the possibility for broad credibility and respect. 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 Strategy

Tarek’s muhakim strategy distinguishes itself from other efforts by creating an entirely local structure for alternative arbitration and conflict resolution. The rationale behind his decision to use respected public figures and leaders stemmed from his work with Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance (CEWLA): He realized that for his idea to spread and have a sustainable impact, he had to rely on local solutions and not just one-off projects. Tarek took his realizations a step further: He created an arbitration committee and identified respected public figures and leaders in the area to help resolve simple conflicts at their inception. At the same time, Tarek understands that local solutions depend on 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. His module covers different models and laws of social and physiological aspects of conflict resolution. As he refines the model, Tarek has collaborated with the natural leaders of marginalized slums and areas where his arbitration structure is being used, each one providing valuable information on community needs and the impact on arbitration participants after intervention. Tarek 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 solution that is satisfactory to all the parties involved before taking legal action that would benefit one party over another. Continued legal education and practical application of the laws are important elements of Tarek’s strategy and credibility as an innovator in his field.It is important to highlight that Tarek’s strategy is to build credibility and sustainability the same way the project was initially launched—through stable, local CDAs. By working with local organizations that already command a certain level of respect from the communities, Tarek gives the system of locally based alternative arbitration legitimacy that he could not have achieved by blindly entering a community. Thus, the spread of Tarek’s idea is taking place through established 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.Over the next three years, Tarek plans to monitor and document the work of the arbitrators and analyze 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 use the media to assist in spreading his system to marginalized slums and suburbs, highlighting different approaches that are “success stories” from the initial years of program implementation. By July 2007, Tarek had secured and trained forty muhakim (street arbitrators) that were selected based on his program goals and objectives, many of whom were trusted, professional law practitioners. The leaders were nominated and elected by a group of COs with whom Tarek has regular contact. Pulling these contacts together has formed the basis of a network that will continue to grow as the program expands. Tarek also worked with the Ministry of Internal Affairs to design a protocol of cooperation and networking between the government and the arbitrators.In 2009, Tarek will finalize and polish a set of manuals that lay out his model. The set of manuals will contain three volumes: The first is a general How to Replicate this Model, while the second and third, train arbitrators and CO staff, respectively, and are more specific. Used together, these manuals will help spread the local arbitrator structure and train people to work with the model.Tarek plans to use 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. Within five years Tarek will be ready to spread the muhakim system and protocols to Upper Egypt and rural districts. Tarek also has plans to have established an Association of Arbitrators that will facilitate the recognition and legitimacy of street intermediary arbitrators, and in time help him reach nearly 25 million people in poor, marginalized suburbs and slums from various squatter areas all over the country.In fostering the spread of his idea, Tarek is seeking governmental recognition and hoping that it will adopt elements of his idea into their program. He does not anticipate—nor does he want—that his model will replace the governmental model currently in place, nor does he expect the government to completely take over, a move that would undermine the credibility of the system. Tarek’s strategy for governmental recognition is to ensure the decisions and agreements made in local arbitration are able to withstand judicial scrutiny in a court setting should a problem arise following disposition by the local system.

The Person

Tarek was born in one of the poor villages of Giza, close to Cairo. As a young boy in school he developed skills as an actor, portraying characters in various dramatic scenes and productions. At the same time he was drawn to participating in public and social-interest programs. This experience led to his decision to attend and graduate from the Faculty of Law and to choose law for his career.Tarek’s deep regard for former Egyptian President Gamal Abd El Nasr, who was successful in prompting development and fighting for the rights of poor people, was instrumental in the priorities he set for himself. In 2006 he joined CEWLA. Tarek’s work with CEWLA led him to personal status litigation that supported low-income and uneducated women in learning about and protecting their legal rights. During that time, 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. 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. A year later he founded Community Development Association of El Kom El Ahmr, in his home town. This CO monitors violence within the community in addition to studying and analyzing the causes. Tarek marks the founding of this organization as a turning point in his life; when he realized he had the knowledge and power to design and implement real change to resolve local and neighborhood disputes, as well as promote systems for peace and community harmony.Tarek is married and has two children. He enjoys writing fiction and drama; keeping in-line with his youthful passion for theater.