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Egypt Table of Contents




Immigration officer checking passport of one of about 2 million tourists who visit annually
Courtesy Embassy of Egypt, Washington

The Judicial System

Egypt based its criminal codes and court operations primarily on British, Italian, and Napoleonic models. Criminal court procedures had been substantially modified by the heritage of Islamic legal and social patterns and the legacy of numerous kinds of courts that formerly existed. The divergent sources and philosophical origins of these laws and the inapplicability of many borrowed Western legal concepts occasioned difficulties in administering Egyptian law. The Criminal Procedure Code of 1950 prescribed the jurisdiction of various courts and provided basic guidance for the conduct of investigations and trial procedures.

The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups brought demands on the government to adopt Islamic sharia. Government officials argued that adopting Islamic sharia was not necessary because 95 percent of Egypt's laws were already consistent with or derived from Islamic law. In 1985 the People's Assembly rejected demands for the immediate adoption of the sharia but supported a recommendation to review all statutes and change the ones that conflicted with Islamic law. This process, which continued for years, necessitated the review of approximately 6,000 laws and 10,000 peripheral legal acts.

The criminal code listed three main categories of crime: contraventions (minor offenses), misdemeanors (offenses punishable by imprisonment or fines), and felonies (offenses punishable by penal servitude or death). Lower courts handled the majority of the cases that reached adjudication and levied fines in about nine out of ten cases. At their discretion, courts could suspend fines or imprisonment (when a sentence did not exceed one year). At the village level, an umdah (pl., umada, village headman) representing the central authority was responsible for maintaining order. The umdah could also adjudicate some minor offenses and impose short prison sentences.

Capital crimes that carried a possible death sentence included murder, manslaughter occurring in the commission of a felony, arson or the use of explosives that caused death, rape, treason, and endangerment of state security. Few convictions for capital crimes, however, resulted in execution. The supreme court, the mufti (see Glossary) of Egypt, and the president reviewed each death sentence. In 1987 Egypt executed six individuals for murder and two others for abduction and rape.

The investigation of a crime was a sort of preliminary trial, and the results of the investigation determined the disposition of the case. The Office of the Public Prosecutor, an institution under the Ministry of Justice, conducted investigations. After an investigation with the help of police officials from the district involved, the public prosecutor could decide to drop a case if the charges were not serious enough to warrant a trial.

Egypt's laws required that a detained person be brought before a magistrate and formally charged within forty-eight hours or released. The accused was entitled to post bail and had the right to be defended by legal counsel. Searches could not be conducted without a warrant. Trials were open to the public, but the court could choose to hold all or part of the hearing in camera "in order to preserve public order or morals." According to the United States Department of State's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, Egypt's judiciary acted independently and carefully observed constitutional and legal safeguards in arrests and pretrial custody. The Emergency Law of 1958 outlined special judicial procedures for some cases. The law enabled authorities to circumvent the increasingly independent regular court system in cases where people were charged with endangering state security. The law applied primarily to Islamic radicals but also covered leftists suspected of political violence, drug smugglers, and illegal currency dealers. It also allowed detention of striking workers, pro-Palestinian student demonstrators, and relatives of fugitives.

The Emergency Law of 1958 authorized the judicial system to detain people without charging them or guaranteeing them due process while an investigation was under way. After thirty days, a detainee could petition the State Security Court to review the case. If the court ordered the detainee's release, the minister of interior had fifteen days to object. If the minister overruled the court's decision, the detainee could petition another State Security Court for release after thirty more days. If the second court supported the detainee's petition, it released the detainee. The minister of interior could, however, simply rearrest the detainee. The government commonly engaged in this practice in cases involving Islamic extremists.

The State Security Courts in the trials they conducted barred secret testimony, upheld defendants' rights to be represented by an attorney, and gave attorneys access to the prosecution's investigations. Trials were usually in public, except in some cases involving political violence. Convicted persons could appeal to the Court of Cassation (see The Judiciary, Civil Rights, and the Rule of Law , ch. 4). The State Security Courts drew their judges from the ranks of the senior judiciary.

In most cases, detainees were released after a period of interrogation and were never brought to trial. In mid-1989 the minister of interior stated that a total of 12,000 individuals had been detained under the Emergency Law of 1958 during the preceding three years. The minister of interior stated that as of early 1990 the government was detaining 2,411 individuals, 813 of whom were being held on political charges.

In certain instances, civilian suspects could be turned over to military courts for trial on the basis of a presidential order. This practice was the subject of a constitutional challenge initiated in 1989.

In 1980 the government created a separate judicial institution, the Court of Ethics, together with its investigating arm, the Office of the Socialist Prosecutor, to investigate complaints of widespread corruption in government. The court was charged with trying offenses against "socialist values," which included corruption and illegal business practices. The Office of the Socialist Prosecutor served as watchdog against abuses by government officials; approved the credentials of candidates for office in the trade union movement, professional syndicates, and local government councils; and performed security checks on senior government appointees.

Data as of December 1990

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Egypt Table of Contents