A Printer’s Odd Plea to Reform Legal Pluralism in Khedival Egypt

Kathryn Schwartz, and Omar Youssef Cheta


In 1871, an Italian-Jewish printer published a peculiar Arabic treatise from Cairo. It promoted strengthening legal pluralism in Khedival Egypt by realigning laws there to accord with those of the Ottoman Empire and European states. Composed by the printer’s legal team, the treatise questioned how justice could be obtained if the extraterritorial privileges of European subjects and protégés were not guaranteed. The printer had been motivated by his own plight: a test of the Egyptian merchant courts left him mired in a catch-22, whereby he could either accept an imperfect verdict, or demand extralegal measures. Choosing the latter option, the treatise embodied his desperate bid to promote his cause. Its importance stems from its very existence. It gave form to the printer’s tricky predicament by grasping at different genres of legal writing; it made his personal story relevant to all by entering it into the public domain; and it audaciously called for strengthening Roman law in Egypt. While the document’s actual influence cannot be ascertained, it anticipated wider historical developments regarding the practice and conception of print and law in the modern Middle East.

Published in

Past & Present, vol. 252, n. 1, August 2021, pp. 179–211