CAIRO: Many of the women entering the office of the Misr el-Kheir charity are afraid to give their names to anyone who asks. They come and go, seeking legal advice and assistance, and often their families do not even know where they are living.
These women are debtors, and fugitives from the law. Many of them are illiterate, and say they are being held accountable for sums well over what they thought they had committed to. Without witnesses to corroborate their stories, however, they are unable to defend themselves in Egypt’s courts, and are wanted to serve prison sentences as punishment for the debts they have accrued.
Debtors may face up to a three-year sentence according to Article 376 in the penal code, away from their children and families, for accumulated debts that ruined their lives. About 6,000 debtors are now landing in prison across Egypt, according to the head of media office at the prisons department, Mohamed Eliwa, who said that the number is unstable.
Only when the debtors pay, have their debts paid for them, or the trader pardons them, are they released from prison.
Many debtors do not see themselves committing a crime when borrowing money to help a daughter get married, or to finance a medical operation for a family member, social researcher at the debtors’ program in Misr el-Kheir Charity Foundation Ramy Mahmoud told The Cairo Post, adding that most of the cases they see are for women.
The penalty for “breach of trust” equates poor debtors with those who have fraudulently passed bad checks and with fugitives who can afford to pay back the money they owe but instead choose to remain on the run, professor of constitutional law Ramadan Bateekh told The Cairo Post.
Sometimes women are imprisoned over small debts, as low as 500 EGP (U.S. $71), said deputy Manager of the Debtors Program in the foundation Gaber Rushdy.
Some women debtors are in prison not for personally borrowing money personally but for being co-signers, added Rushdy. He said that traders oblige wives to co-sign in order to twist their husbands’ arm to pay off the money.
The problem starts when the debtors sign a blank promissory note to buy their essentials, commented Rushdy, as he explained that the promissory note is mainly used by unscrupulous traders “to write a fake value that may reach over 100,000 EGP ($14,367.82).”
“Some traders know how to manipulate law articles and make illiterate debtors sign blank promissory notes, then file a lawsuit to collect his money, which exceeds the real value, where the debtor could face 20-30 years in prison if the debtor is unable to pay off,” continued Rushdy.
“Neither the traders nor the blank promissory note is monitored.” He said, “This problem does not have a solution.” said Bateekh.
“The Consumer Protection Law in the constitution is very weak and it is one of the reasons for the imprisonment of poor and innocent debtors,” said Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Consumer Protection Association Amir el-Koumy to The Cairo Post.
Sabrine: I would rather cut off my fingers than sign another blank paper
Sabrine Abdu, 42, is an illiterate housewife who has four boys and a girl. She found herself obliged to pay a debt of more than 300,000 EGP ($43,000) after she bought a washing machine and a used telephone that only cost 3,500 EGP ($500).
“It all started when I went to buy a washing machine and a telephone and pay by installments from ‘Hajj Ahmed’ from North Cairo for 3,500 EGP,” Abdu told The Cairo Post.
She said, “He insisted that I sign 30 blank promissory notes. Four of which were worth 300,000 EGP, and he obliged my husband and my son to co-sign the promissory notes.”
“First, I paid 800 EGP and he promised to give me the 30 promissory notes by the last payment,” Sabrine said. She said Hajj Ahmed regularly intimidated and yelled at her in front of her neighbors and forced her to pay money. Sabrine said she felt herself weak and pressured saying, “I could not prove that I did not owe him money as I had not received any of the 30 promissory notes I had signed.”
Sabrine kept paying 300 EGP for more than two years, until she exceeded the real debt value. She said, “I paid more than 18,000 EGP ($2583) for him.”
When she refused to make any further payments, her creditor filed a suit against her husband, as he is one of the co-signers on the promissory notes, demanding payment of 60,000 EGP. She said, “He wanted to imprison my husband to put me under pressure after I stopped paying him money.”
“Hajj Ahmed fully intended not to file the 30 promissory notes all at once in order to keep threatening us,” she said.
“My husband was sentenced to three years. But after the Misr el-Kheir Charity foundation helped him and reached a settlement with Hajj Ahmed to pay half the money, he was released,” said Sabrine.
Three days after his release, Sabrine was arrested, and held responsible for 300,000 EGP, and she said Hajj Ahmed asked her to arrange a settlement of 20,000EGP through the Misr el-Kheir foundation.
After a week in prison, Sabrine was now released after the Misr el-Kheir foundation paid her debts and helped her become self-employed by buying her sewing machines to design curtains.
“I would rather cut off my fingers than sign blank promissory notes again,” she said.
Rushdy said that Misr el-Kheir is trying to “raise people’s awareness, especially in poor villages and encourage them to stop signing blank promissory notes.” Misr el-Kheir has its own social researcher team which reaches out to poor villages and goes door to door in order to explain the problems of signing blank promissory notes.
Social Researcher Mahmoud explained that the majority of the debtors are “living hand to mouth,” and have falled into debt following the economic recession and security unrest after the January 25 Revolution.
Badriya el-Borai, 55, is one example of this. She is a widow who lost three of her six children in different accidents. Being wanted by the police over failing to pay off her debt, Borai is now living as a fugitive away from home to avoid arrest.
“I got a loan worth 7,450 EGP to start a new project to sell blankets and clothes,” Borai told The Cairo Post. “Under the security unrest following the [January 25] Revolution, I was conned by many customers who did not pay for clothes they bought, leaving me unable to pay off my debt to the bank.”
Iman Hassan, 31, also struggled for years to overcome a debt of 150,000 EGP. Although she graduated in 2005 from the Faculty of Arts, “due to the problem of unemployment [facing] youth, I tended to distribute pre-paid mobile cards and acted as a saleswoman, fulfilling orders on discounted catalogue items to clients. It was very profitable,” she told The Cairo Post.
She said she borrowed 40,000 EGP to pay for an operation for her father, and first found herself in trouble after a trader sold her counterfeit mobile cards, and said she was unable to find another job.
“I started to sell my clothes to pay the debts,” she added. “I also headed to the Moral Affairs at the Ministry of Defense, but they refused to give me a loan.”
Iman said she signed a number of blank promissory notes with traders and people she borrowed the money from until she was burdened by a debt worth more than 150,000 EGP. She added, “The Salafi Call paid me 40,000 EGP, Misr el-Kheir paid 10,000 EGP and my fiancé sold our home for 30,000 EGP to help me.”
“The problem is that my fiancé is a co-signer on the promissory notes and now he is wanted by the police,” continued Iman. “He was prompted to move in and live with his friend in order not to get arrested.”
Being engaged for seven years, Iman said she feels sorry and guilt for implicating her fiancé in the problem.
With tears dropping on her hand, Iman said, “I saw three awful years under stress of unaffordable debts.” She added that she only solved three quarters of her debt and she is trying now to work and payoff 70,000 EGP ($10,043). She continued, “I am working now as a private teacher for children besides running a project established by Misr el-Kheir.”
Egyptian debtors’ crisis: ‘Law does not protect the duped’
“The people’s ignorance of law is not an excuse, and it is mainly the problem. And whoever signs a promissory note deserves punishment,” said professor of constitutional law Bateekh. He said the promissory note problem is not monitored.
Signing a blank promissory note is a tool of pressure used by the creditors to force low-income people to pay more than the requested money, but “unfortunately it is hard to be discovered by the court, and here the law does not protect the duped” said the dean of the Law Faculty at Cairo University Mahmoud Kbeish to The Cairo Post.
Kbeish added, “The constitution criminalizes the act of signing a blank promissory note but only if there are witnesses who are able to testify to the court that the promissory note was blank when the debtor signed it.” He noted that signing a blank promissory note falls under the penalty of “breach of trust,” which serves a penalty of three years imprisonment.
Trapped by illiteracy and poverty, most of women debtors are responsible for shouldering the burdens of a family breadwinner, said Soheir Awad, the manager of the Debtors Program at Misr el-Kheir, to The Cairo Post.
International covenant not legislatively implemented
Egypt is a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, article 11 of which prevents the imprisonment of individuals over failing to pay their debts: “No one shall be imprisoned merely on the ground of inability to fulfill a contractual obligation.”
This article, however, does not apply to blank promissory notes, which are not treated as civil debts but fall under the “breach of trust” penalty, said Kbeish, Since the notes do not have details about the trade process carried between the trader and the client, they are treated as criminal debts instead of civil ones, he said.
Further, Bateekh said that article 11 has been under consideration, for more than six years, before the Supreme Constitutional Court in order to be activated in the constitution. He added, “If this article is implemented, it will definitely help the debtors.
“We have high deficiencies in the legal system and the judicial practice,” said Executive Manager of the Observatory of General Budget and Human Rights Helmy el-Rawy to The Cairo Post. Rawy added that the constitution in Egypt is obligated to consider international agreements, although they are not implemented on the legislative level, “And this is considered a violation to the international covenant.”
Moreover, Rawy noted that the Committees of Covenants at the United Nations have submitted many recommendations in this regard to Egypt.
Egyptian law should state that the provisions of the agreements are part of the law, as well as carry out legislative amendments, added El-Rawy.
Promissory notes’ article needs amending
The article on promissory notes in the constitution is very weak and imprecise, and some legislative amendments are needed to exactly define on whom the “breach of trust” penalty is applied, said Koumy.
“Also, the law of the consumer protection in the constitution does not penalize high priced goods and large installments,” Koumy said. “The Consumer Protection Agency is delinquent in fulfilling its role in observing and protecting consumers amid the current absence of a strict system in the country,” he added.
About 3,200 government-subsidized marketplaces and outlets, where goods sell at much lower costs than an average market, are inactive and neglected in Egypt, said Koumy, suggesting the state to make use of them to provide goods with cheap prices for the low-income citizens.
On the other hand, Kbeish’s opinion was that the debtors’ problem cannot be solved through legal amendments, saying, “It is the state’s role to change society’s culture and improve people’s living situation.”
The chairman of the National Association for the Defense of Rights and Freedoms (NADRF) Waleed Farouq said that the current efforts in this regard are personal or private initiatives launched by charity foundations, such as Misr el-Kheir, which announced it has helped to release 18,000 debtors since 2010.
Farouq said the Armed Forces have also recently become involved in debt forgiveness. A recent initiative announced by the army would pay off money for jailed women debtors.
On August 8, 2013, for example, the military forces released 48 women prisoners, whose debts vary between 1,000 EGP ($143.6) and 15,000 EGP ($2,155). The army said this would be only the first batch but more release have yet to happen.
“The Ministry of Solidarity should have a role in providing markets with low-priced goods for low-income citizens to lift the burdens off them and protect them from greedy traders,” said Farouq.
Further, Farouq suggested that the state should be officially represented to monitor the deals on installments between the customer and the trader, which would guarantee traders’ rights and that clients are not deceived.
Kbeish disagrees, on the other hand, saying he doubted the ability of the state to observe the dealings between the trader and the client, because traders would refuse since he would face long procedures in the civil courts when the promissory notes are considered as civil debt not criminal. He added that in the event the client cannot pay off his debt, he would have his properties seized rather than be jailed.
The head of the Central Department for Associations and Unions in the Ministry of Solidarity, Khaled Sultan, told The Cairo Post, “The Ministry does not pay for the debtors, but this is the charity associations’ job. The ministry only monitors these charity associations administratively and financially.”
Between lax legal articles and the absence of guarantees in both the constitution and implementation, women debtors who have been deceived or swindled continue to be imprisoned in Egypt.
Having yet to achieve their right to a decent life, debtors in Egypt will always be haunted by loose laws that turn them into criminals, where they either end up as fugitives or behind bars, resorting to charity associations to pay off their debts.