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ERC Securing Europe, Fighting its enemies, 1815-1914

Research

Securing financial interests. European judicial cooperation at the Mixed Courts of Egypt, 1867-1914

By Susanne Keesman MA –

Mixed Court building of Alexandria (Place Mohammed Ali)

Mixed Court building in Alexandria (Place Mohammed Ali)

In 1875 fourteen western powers signed an agreement with Egypt to reform the Egyptian judicial system and thereby founded a regime that came to be known as the Mixed Courts of Egypt. These newly established courts led to a radical reform of Egypt’s nineteenth-century legal system, where consular courts, government tribunals and religious courts subjected both natives and foreigners to a wide spectrum of different courts.

The development of the cotton trade and the Suez Canal attracted many foreign subjects and investments to Egypt. The existing judicial system was unequipped to handle the increasingly complicated legal affairs. Difficult problems of jurisdiction were the result, hampering European investments and international trade. The mixed courts system solved this deadlock and became an unprecedented institute for international legal cooperation, offering a unified legal system with qualified judges (two thirds appointed from the so-called fourteen capitulary powers and a third from Egypt). According to Jasper Yeates Brinton, a Judge at the Mixed Courts, they were “the intellectual elite of the country, lawyers of great ability and eloquence, singularly articulate”.

Borghos Nubar Pasha (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Borghos Nubar Pasha (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The courts have predominantly been studied from a legal perspective, neglecting the complicated processes of their creation. The fourteen capitulary powers were in fact extremely reluctant to take on this legal experiment. It would take a decade of international negotiations in which the Egyptian statesman Nubar Pasha lobbied extensively throughout Europe, managing a diplomatic battlefield that moved between Cairo, London, Paris and Constantinople.  The eventual agreement to which the capitulary powers subscribed stipulated an experimental period of five years in which each state had the right to end the agreement at any given moment of time.

This sub-project studies the emergence of the mixed courts through the lens of European collaboration in the nineteenth century. On the basis of archival research this project will demonstrate that the threat of economic downfall and colonial power struggles forced the capitulary powers and Egypt to reform the Egyptian judicial system in order to protect their shared financial interests.