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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Triadic Legal Pluralism in North Sinai: A Case Study of State, Shari‘a, and ‘Urf Courts in Conflict and Cooperation


To the extent that legal scholars have addressed the post-authoritarian transitions underway in the Middle East, the scope of their work has been primarily confined to the formal infrastructure of state-manufactured law. Attention has focused on the activities of high courts, parliaments, and the administrative apparatus of official justice systems, while largely neglecting to acknowledge the importance of non-state institutions and systems of normative rules that operate in the shadow of modern bureaucratic governments. The concept of legal pluralism, defined as the coexistence of multiple legal or normative orders within a common geographical area, has been applied extensively in European, South American, and sub-Saharan African contexts, but is underutilized in analysis of revolutionary and transitional change in the Middle East. Nowhere is the presence of legal pluralism more apparent than in Egypt’s geographically remote Sinai Peninsula, where non-state Islamic courts that emerged in the post-revolutionary security vacuum in 2011 claim to have absorbed 75 percent of the caseload once handled by Egypt’s official justice system and aspire to achieve full autonomy from the state. This paper, based on field research conducted in the governorate of North Sinai, argues that the rapid institutionalization of non-state shari‘a courts since the 2011 uprising can be explained in part by two historical trends: (1) the Islamizing effects of state-sponsored development and labor migration policies on Bedouin society in North Sinai; and (2) growing disillusionment with state and tribal judiciaries, which are often viewed as complicit in the disenfranchisement of the Bedouin and expropriation of their lands.

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