Receptivity to Legal Change: Merchants’ Adjustment to the New Commercial Laws and Courts in Egypt, 1883-1949

By Hania Abou Al-Shamat
Submitted to Session P3216 (Transitioning Law: Islamic Law and Its Relation to Other Legal Systems, 2012 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Until the mid 19th century, commercial transactions and litigation in the Middle East were carried according to Islamic law. By the end of the century, reform through the transplant of European legal systems, whether through outside imposition or internal adoption and adaptation, swept the region. Starting in 1883 in Egypt, a new system of national courts applying French commercial codes emerged. Corporate bodies, such as limited liability companies, were recognized as legal entities, opening the possibility for new organizational models. Written contracts were accepted as evidence in the courts, documentation requirements were incorporated into the system, and professional legal representation was introduced. This study analyzes merchants’ receptivity of and adaptability to these legal changes in Egypt.
The legal reforms attracted much scholarly attention. Focus has been given to the political and economic history of the reforms, their compatibility to Islamic law, the dominance of the mixed courts, the emergence of the national courts, shari‘a courts in the post reform period, and the legal reforms of 1949. Absent from the literature are the beneficiaries of the legal transplants, the average citizens, and how they dealt with the new legal systems in their daily transactions. Also lacking is the real functioning of the national courts as Egyptians made use of them.
This study attempts to empirically capture and analyze these two points. It studies the national courts registers and the archives of merchants’ councils to answer the following questions: How did Egyptian merchants respond to the new legal changes? How often did they resort to the national courts to resolve their commercial disputes? What types of partnerships were taken to the court? How often were written documents used to settle commercial disputes? What forms and scale of partnerships emerged after the reform?
The aim of the study is to shed light on an under-researched area of the commercial and legal history of Egypt, understand the receptivity of a secular law by a largely Muslim population, and understand the process of adaptability to a new legal system.