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Egypt: Law and Administration of Ancient and Not so Ancient Egypt


Egypt a Civilization of Law and Legislation

A Pharaoh presenting the symbol of Justice to the god

of Dekkah Temple, Ptolemic era (330 BC - 30BC)


Over a span of 50 centuries, the banks of the Nile was the scene of one of the oldest civilisations in history, The ancient Egyptians forged out their own genuine unprecedented laws, legislations and administrative regulations, which continually progressed with time. Legal and legislative texts were found on the walls of palaces and temples or papyri written in hieroglyphic, demotic, Coptic, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Aramic and Arabic. Among the modern world, Egypt is the most ancient country as far as the legal systems are concerned.


A mural of narmere Menes (3200 BC)


Menes and the Unified State:

Along centuries, Egyptian civilizations flourished, based on strongly established foundations in administration and government systems.

About 5200 years ago, King Menes laid down the oldest legislative systems in human history when he issued the law of "Tehut", god of wisdom, as the only law applicable all over Egypt. He also made "Memphis", the capital of first unified and centralized state in history, with an organized system of government, administration, judiciary, education, police, army, etc..

Ancient Egyptian antiquities speak much of how advanced their government and administrative systems were. The king (Pharaoh) was the Head of the State who appointed the Great Treasurer or Tax Collector. Local government was successfully applied in Egypt since the time of the Old Kingdom.

The king controled the executive and judicial powers and exercised his executive power with the assistance of many civil servants. However, his powers in selecting those aides were not absolute. He had to abide by the legal rules of seniority and literacy level.


Legislation in the Old Kingdom:

In the old kingdom, the state institutions were clearly defined with specified duties either in the royal court, government or the administrative machinery or the consultative councils. The ministerial posts were established later.


Major Features of Legislation and Common Law in this Kindom:

1- Royal Court: As the unified state in the old kingdom was firmly established, the kings authorities grew wider. Consequently, the royal court and the status and terms of reference of court staff gained more importance ranging from religious, civil, judicial and military duties.

2- Central Government: The central government was headed by the king who was assisted by a number of civil servants. Government executives were subject to a complete, administrative hierarchy. It is worth noting that this legal system was obligatory and binding to the king whose powers in selecting and promoting civil servants were restricted.

3- Advisors: The advisor was the highest official in the state and the head but not a member of the governments higher council or the council of big ten.

4- Council of Big Ten: Since the 3rd Dynasty, the council, known also as the higher council of the government, comprised senior state officials in addition to certain army commanders and one of the royal sons. This council controlled the state administrative machinery and ensured the enforcement of legislations and royal decrees. Starting the Fifth Dynasty, it assumed judiciary functions.

5- Ministers: With the beginning of the Fourth Dynasty, certain laws, legislations and reforms were introduced to the government and the state administrative machinery. Of these, the most significant was the introduction of the position of the judge of royal porte, the ancient equivalent of a minister, that was a civilian rather than a military position .

6- State Central Administrative Machinery: State central administrative machinery comprised a number of large departments assigned all administrative functions of the state, including the Kings House, with branches in every province, responsible for the state administrative services. It comprised departments of special importance such as the royal mail department which ensured that royal orders were properly communicated. Other departments included financial, royal worship, public works , tax , water and the army.

Personal Status Legal System in the Old Kingdom

At this stage of Egyptian legal and legislative history individualism was the dominant trend. Every individual had the right to acquire any property of his choice. Disposition of property was a guaranteed right to owner. Personal status legal system provided for the following :

Each Egyptian had the right to marry only one woman.

Woman is equal to man and she has the right to have her own property and enter into sale or purchase contracts.

Fathers wealth shall be inherited equally by his sons and daughters, without distinction between males and females.

Every man is free to make his own will.

Slavery was not sanctioned by the Egyptian law at that time.

Neighbouring landlords normally shared water for irrigation.

Legislations and Decrees

Since the 3rd and 4th Dynasties of the Old Kingdom, many decrees and legislations were issued including one specifying farmers working hours and another abolishing forced labour.

One can easily figure out how advanced and diversified were state functions upon reading the inscriptions on the chief minister walls of the tomb of "Rakhmiraa", the chief minister and chief judge of king Thutmose III at Thebes. The most prominent example is a text in hieroglyphic of a marriage contract between king Ramsis II and the daughter of a Hithite king on the occasion of concluding a peace treaty between both kingdoms during the modern kingdom (1570 BC-1304 BC); the first and most ancient in history.

Mohamed Ali


Civil Legislation

Under the New Kingdom, king "Horemheb" was as one of the most important legislators in history. His legislations were typically marked with a civil rather than a religious nature. . His legislations, dating back to the 18th Dynasty (circa 1330 BC) were the first to enshrine public freedoms and rights. He also emphasized the concept of public posts as a means to serve rather than to overpower the people.

Another example is a mural representing the punishment of tax evaders, found in the tomb of Princess "Aidot" in Saqara, considered to be the oldest tax legislation in history.

A parinting was found showing the king introduce "Maait", the symbol of justice and law, to the gods in clear reference to the sanctity of the concepts and values of justice and rule of law.

Another painting from the Ptolemic era (332 BC-30 BC) reperesented Ibis, the symbol of the god of wisdom Tehut, holding a symbolic feather of justice.

Despite the harsh conditions under the Roman rule, Egyptians managed to maintain most of their traditions, rules and customs until the advent of Christianity into Egypt during the first half of the 1st century AD.The Egyptian church contributed to the establishment of several rules and traditions. Under the Islamic era, systems of government and legislation were derived from the Holy Quraan and the Sunna (Traditions) of Prophet Muhammad based on the shura (consultative) principle; an essential principle of government in Islam.

Under Fatimid Caliphate (969 AD-1171 AD), systems of government and legislation progressed. Under the Ayyobid era (1171-1250 AD), the Citadel became the seat of power. A variety of legislative and judiciary councils were set up, including a council of justice and a council for grievances; etc. These councils were mandated, inter alia, to issue legislations and laws and conclude treaties with foreign countries.

Under the Mameluk era (1250 AD-1517 AD), Sultan az-Zhaher Beibers built the "House of Justice" (Dar el-Adl) The Ruling Council was mandated, inter alia, to issue and enforce legislations, settle disputes and conduct negotiations with neighbouring countries.

Under the Ottoman era (1517 AD-1805 AD), the judicary system was based on Sharia (Islamic law) courts, This situation prevailed up to the end of the 18th century.

At the close of the 18th century, Egypt witnessed significant political and social developments. In 179 , Cairo witnessed the first socio- political uprising triggered by the oppression and injustice by the Ottoman ruler (Wali) and the Mameluks.

This situation culminated in the eliciting by religious (Ulema) and popular leaders from the Ottoman ruler (Wali) and Mamelukes of a deed in writing which was the first "Magnacarta of Egypt". This deed clearly regulated individual- authority relationship stipulating that no taxes or penalties should be imposed unless authorized by al Azhar Ulamas in their capacity as representatives of the people.

In May,1805, Egypt witnessed the first mature democratic revolution of the modern age. That revolution was led by al Azhar with the involvement of all categories of people. " In the name of the people", the leaders of the revolution appointed Muhammad Ali Pasha as "Wali"- ruler of Egypt. Muhammad Ali was declared ruler under the "conditions of the people" which involved the concept that "the nation is the source of authority".

Once the sole ruler of Egypt, Mohammad Ali started total administrative revolution to found modern institutions of government including a modern representative council.

In 1824, the "High Council", considered to be the real beginning of the first parliament was established, with most members elected..

The Advisory Council

The success of the High Council led to the establishment in 1829 of another council; the Advisory Council. Regarded as the nucleus of the Consultative (Shura) system. The Advisory Council was convoked to give counsel on matters related to education, administration and public works. In 1830, a package of standing orders for the council was issued. In 1833, the Advisory Council enacted its own law, defining the term of the councils sessions as well as deliberations and decision-making procedures.

In 1837, Muhammad Ali issued the basic statutes of the state, whereby the Advisory Council was repealed and replaced with two new councils: the "Special Council" for issuing laws and the "Public Council" for discussing matters referred thereto by the government, which was itself organized into seven main Diwans (ministries).


Advisory Council of Representatives

The year 1866 witnessed the most crucial step of enhancing the parliamentary life in Egypt by establishing the "Advisory Council of Representatives" during Khedive Ismails region. This council was the first parliament with representative functions, rather than just a consultative council.

The statute covered election system and legal requirements for eligibility of candidates and duration of sessions. The council was authorized to "discuss internal affairs and submit recommendations to the Khedive".

The Advisory Council of Representatives was composed of 75 members elected by dignitaries of major cities well as mayors and deputy-mayors in other provinces. The speaker of the Council was appointed by a Khedivi decree.

The term of the Council was 3 years during which it was convened for two months a year. The Council of Representatives held 9 sessions over 3 parliamentary formations.

As time passed, the powers of the Council gradually expanded and embryonic opposition trends started to emerge, actuated by the wide circulation of enlightenment ideas by a group of major intellectuals and writers in addition to the rise of newspapers; this added strength to public demands for a parliament with wider legislative and control powers.

This led to the creation in 1878 of the first Council of Ministers in Egypt, and the re-institution of the parliament.

In June 1879, the statute of the council of representatives was submitted to the Khedive for promulgation, The most important points in the proposed statute provided for "ministerial responsibility" and wider authority for the council in financial affairs. However, Khedivi Tawfiq, appointed on June 26,1879, rejected the statute and dissolved the council. Yet, the Council continued to hold sessions until July 1879.


House of Representatives:

On September 1, 1881, the Orabi Revolution broke out demanding, inter alia, the establishment of a House of Representatives. Elections for the House were actually held in accordance with the regulations of the council of representatives issued in 1866. The new House of Representatives was opened on December 26,1881 and the government presented a draft statute for approval by the Ottoman Sultan which was granted on February 7,1882. According to the new statute, the cabinet was accountable to the publicly elected House which had also the power of legislation and the right of interpolation. Its term was extended to 5 years with 3 months meeting sessions.

However, the House did not last long. In 1882, Britain occupied Egypt and repealed its statute and in 1883, a so-called regulatory law was promulgated resulting in a set back to parliamentary life in Egypt.

Advisory Council of Laws

The so-called regulatory law, promulgated in 1833 stipulated that the Egyptian parliament was bicameral, consisting of "Advisory Council of Law" and "The General Assembly". The law also established the provincial councils with administrative rather than legislative functions. But they were also concerned with electing the members of the Advisory Council of laws.

The Advisory Council of Laws consisted of 30 members of whom 14 were appointed and 16 elected. for a term of 6 years. The General Assembly consisted of 83 members of whom 46 were elected and the remaining members on ex-officio basis, The speaker of Advisory Council of laws chaired the General Assembly. The two councils convened from 1883 to 1913 in 31 sessions.

The Legislative Assembly

In July, 1913, both councils were repealed. A Legislative Assembly was established, consisting of 83 members of whom 66 were elected and 17 appointed.

According to a regulatory law, issued on July 1,1913, the term of the legislative Assembly was 6 years. The Assembly continued in effect from January 22,1914 to June 17,1914.

In December, 1914, Britain declared Egypt as a protectorate. The meetings of the Assembly in 1915 were indefinitely adjourned and in 1915 "the regulatory Law" was repealed and the Legislative Assembly abolished in April 1923.

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