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Omar Cheta

Omar Cheta

The practice of imprisoning debtors in Egypt had a long Islamic legal genealogy, but in the nineteenth century it came to be largely controlled by bureaucrats and in the service of the modern state. The mid-1800s was a period of significant change in the economic and legal realms in Egypt and the Ottoman Empire.

The outlawing of monopolies ushered in a period of intense and free commercial exchange. The modern state-building project entailed a significant redrawing of the legal map, which included the expansion of incarceration as punishment and the redefinition of the jurisdiction of Islamic law. The practice of imprisoning debtors was at the intersection of these developments.

This chapter combines references from official state documents, Islamic legal opinions, and European traveler accounts to reconstruct the experiences of debtors who were incarcerated in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Specifically, it explains the conditions that led debtors to prison, what went on inside the prison, and what path they could follow to depart from it.

Some debtors were imprisoned because of the stipulations of French-inspired Ottoman and khedival laws, while others suffered the same fate because of a decision by a shari‘a court judge. The path to and purpose of debtor prisons did not differ radically in either case.

Thus, the chapter highlights the continuities between Islamic and state-enacted legal practices. It also sheds light on the incongruence between state policy shifts and what individual historical actors may have experienced on a social level.