Enid Hill, Mahkama! Studies in the Egyptian Legal System (London: Ithaca Press, 1980).

Enid Hill has produced an unusual and important contribution to understanding the political economy of modern Egypt. Her book, clear and easy to follow, adopts an anthropological approach to the study of the Egyptian legal system. She shows how the poor, the lower middle class, and the rich get what they can out of this structure. Hill treats “the legal system of Egypt as a modern system in its own right,” what she calls the law of a periphery capitalist formation, following the earlier work of Hossam Issa and others dealing more generally with Egypt and the world market.

What distinguishes this book is the treatment of the legal relations of men and women in class terms, through a series of cases, anecdotes and direct observations of courtrooms in Cairo and Alexandria in the early 1970s. Political economy, often rather abstract, is brought down to the level of the family, as problems like divorce, child support, attitudes toward bribery, and crimes of passion are seen in their social context. Hill proves that the Egyptian legal system in fact serves the poor who, partly out of necessity to get support, resort to it far more than do the property- owning classes, who have too much at stake to risk the interference of the state. To class analysis, she adds a historical sociology of crime in modern Egypt.

Her insight that Egypt has a modern capitalist juridical system only depending on French or classical Islamic antecedents is quite new. Hill’s sources serve to demolish certain stereotypes about Egypt of long standing. Women do get divorces, especially if they are persistent. The court often sides with the woman and puts pressure on a reluctant husband to divorce. This is especially true of the poor, who are in many senses more “modern” in their use of the court system than the educated but more traditional-minded petty bourgeois. Litigiousness of the lower classes, this book shows, is an important social phenomenon, perhaps even a form of class struggle.

How to cite this article:

Peter Gran "Hill, Mahkama!," Middle East Report 96 (May/June 1981).
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