The Purpose and Role of Police Forces, Prisons, and Law Courts in Colonial and Post-Colonial Egypt and Sudan

This article will explain the changing natures of the police forces, prisons, and law courts of Egypt and Sudan across their colonial and post-colonial histories. Although, for the sake of clarity, these three elements will be dealt with individually, it is important that the interconnected nature of these factors is not overlooked. It is also important to not only recognise the differences between the colonial and post-colonial systems, but the differences between how those systems operated in the distinctly separate environments of Egypt and Sudan. Firstly, however, I will give a concise synopsis of how the Egyptian and Sudanese legal institutions have broadly changed across their colonial and post-colonial existences.

In Sudan I identify a clear arc of progression for the three elements in question, which I group together to call the “legal institution”. In the colonial state, these elements of the legal institution function similarly in how they are used as forms of repression but are disguised as facets of goodwill. Although there is some variation from this central theme, particularly with the adversarial colonial police, I will demonstrate how they all served ultimately as a velvet glove for the British administration. In the post-colonial state, they continued to follow a similar pattern to one other. There was a brief period of attempt at liberal change and reform under Ismail al-Azhari before a return to colonial styles of practice with the rule of Gaafar Nimeiry, despite the superficially divergent style of Islamised rule he introduced. Omar al-Bashir has used the legal administration in much the same way as his predecessor.

Egypt has a very similar colonial story but a more complex post-colonial one. Due to the colonial system lacking any great nuance in the way it administered its various colonies, Egyptian legal institutions under the British were much the same as Sudan; the legal administration provided great promise of virtue, but granted very little in reality. Post-colonial Egypt is a more interesting case. There is a moment of excitement for change under Muhammad Naguib which amounts to little. This is followed by the takeover of Gamal Abdel Nasser who used the legal administration as an extension of his governance and returned Egypt to colonial-style rule, despite his socialist reforms in other areas. Anwar Sadat flipped the system once more and purged the Nasserians, instituting a more democratic legal system. Hosni Mubarak operated a considerably more restrictive, expanded, and corrupt legal institution but in an underhanded way which disguised its true nature. The 2011 revolution and the election of the Mohamed Morsi was started partly on the grounds of opposing the corrupt legal system, but was short lived and did not introduce radical reform. Abdel Fattaj el-Sisi now uses the legal administration in much the same way as Egypt’s prior dictators.

In regard to prisons, when the British first arrived in Egypt and Sudan they were vocal about the purpose of prisons as instruments of reform. Many criticised the Ottoman system which had formerly been in place, publicly denouncing it as a proponent of ‘cruelties inflicted upon the defenceless people by unprincipled rulers’. It was seen that Europe’s purpose was to better Egypt and Sudan by exporting “liberalism” to them. The prison system, and the wider legal system more generally, were obvious targets for reform, as these were the tools by which a state enforced its ideologies. However, these lofty ideals were held back by two main factors; lack of resources and lack of conviction. The first one of these is self-explanatory, the prisons were not provided with either enough staff or resource to run a reformative system. In fact, they were barely able to run a system at all, one which could ‘only be managed, rather than controlled’. The lack of conviction is the more interesting and more important of these two however, as it is this ennui which resulted in such poor practical support for the prison system. W.J Berridge describes this as an ‘ambivalent ideology’ which was partially reflective of the internal divides which existed within the legal administration between the prison officers and the colonial command. There was also a significant proportion of prison officials who thought it more reformative to leave some criminals out of prison; those from the countryside. The countryside and the notion of the “tribe” were seen through the colonial lens as areas of naïve innocence, peoples who could hardly commit a crime if they tried. On the other hand, the urban environment was seen as a corrupting force, one which created hard-line recidivists who could never be reformed. Thus, to throw someone from the countryside into the urban environment of the jail would do them more harm than good, and would corrupt them. Along similar lines, if urban criminals were not able to be reformed, the purpose of the prison system as an instrument of reform makes little sense. It was thus a lack of purpose which defined the prison systems in colonial Egypt and Sudan; a lack of purpose which left the original ideal of reform unfulfilled.

Post-colonial prisons in both Egypt and Sudan initially followed a similar path of progression; a brief period of purpose in attempting to genuinely fulfil the promises of the colonial system. In Egypt this was under the rule of Muhammad Naguib (in power from June 1953 to November 1954) and in Sudan this was under Ismail al-Azhari (in power from January 1956 to May 1969). This has been termed “defensive developmentalism”, a demonstration of capability from the new regime achieved by borrowing European developmentalist ideals. In Egypt this was a far shorter affair than it was in Sudan and so had less opportunity to produce results, however both countries ultimately failed to fulfil the purpose of their prison systems. In Sudan there was greater progress, with the establishment of “prison shows”, allowing prisoners the vote, and a placement of emphasis on prison education. This achievement was tactile but ultimately inadequate, due to physical restrictions such as prison capacity and ultimately a failing to repeal key aspects of the colonial system such as prison labour. Over time in both countries, starting with Nasser in 1956 in Egypt and with Nimiery in 1969 in Sudan, any steps made forward were reversed. These governments became more concerned with immediate security as supposed to long-term rehabilitation and both perpetuated a more retributive system than their predecessors. Interestingly, it was these governments that particularly espoused their unique Islamic form of Justice and their difference to the Christian colonial regime, yet it was these governments that returned the prisons to a colonial-style system. The defensive developmentalists, contrarily, actively followed European ideals yet created a system much divergent from the British one. The purpose of these prison systems was to contain and punish, both Nasser and Nimiery imprisoning thousands of political opponents over their time in power. In Sudan Omar al-Bashir continues to use prisons in much the same way. In Egypt prisons have also been used as a political tool, used by one regime to purge the previous one. Even Anwar Sadat, the most democratically orientated of Egypt’s rulers, imprisoned opponents such as Ali Sabri and Sharawy Gomaa. These post-Naguib/al-Azhari regimes also had the additional pressures of the 1973 and 1979 oil crises to deal with which contributed to economic and political instability and a lack of capital to be invested in the carceral system.

The colonial law courts were created deliberately and purposefully to be a tangled mess of legislation. Their purpose was to be so confused and unreadable that the British could act as they liked and punish as they liked under the “law” and go unchallenged. In much the same way as Berridge describes the ‘ambiguous ideology’ of prison officials, Jeffrey Adam Sachs describes the ‘strategic ambiguity’ of the courts. The difference is that the prison system promised a purpose but delivered a purposelessness whereas the court system promised purposelessness but delivered a purpose. In Sudan, the establishment of tribal courts in 1920 moved the legal power base away from the more legally literate effendiyya to the inexperienced Sheiks. The same had been the case in Egypt in 1883 with the creation of native tribunals. These “Native Administrations” were given considerable power but it was a power that lay undefined and lay alongside the colonial administration. This plurality of control was yet another clouding factor of informality in the legal system. The reason for this was that legal rigour led to professionalisation, institutionalisation, and urbanisation. The British, just as with the prisons, found it more advantageous to “preserve” (or rather, create) an informal and less organised system, described by Abdallāh Alī Ibrāhīm as a ‘Manichean Delirium’.

Post-colonial law courts were left to deal with the incredibly confused legacy the British had left behind, and it took decades to dismantle the colonial apparatus. In Egypt, the mixed courts, which had been established to try civil cases involving Europeans in 1876 and which the British regarded as a total triumph, were abolished in 1949. Following that the religious courts were merged with the national courts in 1956 and the trend of a fairer, independent institution was set well on course until the turn of the 1970s. At this point, with Nasser’s political opposition growing, there came a harsher, more restricted court system which would continue to grow harsher into the 1980s with the establishment of “State Security Courts” under Mubarak. The defining point in this turn of attitude was the 1969 “Massacre of the judges” in which over 200 judges were dismissed and by Nasser and the Egyptian Judges Club was dissolved. In Sudan it was not until the more authoritarian rule of Nimiery that the colonial system began to be dismantled with the abolishment of the native administration in 1970 and the return to common law in 1973. This was not replaced with, as it had been initially in Egypt, with a more democratic institution, but with the September Laws and the introduction of Sharia law, as part of Nimiery’s wider program of “Islamisation” across the country, a move which led eventually to civil war. The law courts had different purposes in post-colonial Egypt and Sudan; in Sudan they were to help spread a program of Islamisation and in Egypt they were to, after a brief period of relative independence, enforce an increasingly dictatorial rule of law.

The British were as critical of the pre-colonial police force as they were of all the other legal institutions. They regarded the police as slaves to the Mudirs, one paper calling that Britain could ‘not tolerate for twenty-four hours longer the continuation of such a system’. In Egypt, one central purpose of the colonial police system was indeed to take power away from the Mudirs by instituting parallel inspectors which could undermine their control, just as with plurality of control involving the native administration and the colonial state with the law courts. The police were also split from the military with the introduction of “civil policing” with the purpose of dividing in order to rule. Despite this division however, the police, more so than the courts and the prisons, proved to be the most rebellious of the three legal institutions. The British were unable to stop the “professionalisation” of the police force, of which they had succeeded with the prisons and law courts, and this caused tensions to rise between the colonial administrators and the police. In Sudan the story was much the same; the defining point of tension being the 1951 Khartoum police strike which involved over 700 policemen, and which had to be quelled by the Sudan Defence Force (SDF). The fact that police were concentrated in urban areas was also a factor in leading to their more nationalistic and rebellious attitude. The purpose of the colonial police for the British was to institute control but without instituting professionalisation, which it was feared would lead to nationalism. Just as with the purpose of a reformative prison system, this purpose was not achieved. However, unlike the prison system, this was not unachieved for the want of trying, as the British were constantly attempting to wrest control away from any kind of independent police and into the hands of a few colonial administrators. The 1951 strike was a perfect pretext in Sudan for furthering this goal and was used to reverse the progress the police had made since 1945. However, ultimately the Police were not total radicals, as they were still inextricably tied to the state system. The nature of their profession made them in some sense loyal to the British, and they would have to give up their work to really institute rebellion. Their purpose from their perspective then, was as reformers rather than radicals.

For much the same reasons, the police forces across all of post-colonial Egypt and Sudan were never truly revolutionary. Indeed, it was under the colonial system that they had the most potential for insurrection, a potential that was not seen in the post-colonial context. In Egypt and Sudan, the police became far more agents of the state following independence, with new administrations purging and recreating the police force to suit their agendas. At this time the secret police, particularly the soviet secret police under Nasser, rose to prominence and were used as further agents of repression. Sadat was thus hailed for his ejection of the secret police in 1970. Under Mubarak Egypt found itself under a constant “state of emergency” which allowed him and his ever-expanding police force even more power that he could use to exercise control.  Even under al-Azhari in Sudan, perhaps the most liberal of all the post-colonial leaders, the police’s purpose was as agents of repression alongside the military, particularly employed against southern Sudanese. In fact, as time progressed it was the police who became the target of revolution as supposed to the instigators; with the 2011 Egyptian revolutionaries focussing on police brutality and corruption and in which over 90 police stations were set alight in protest. Indeed, the revolution began by no coincidence on Egypt’s national police day, the 25th of January.

It is interesting to note that with all of these legal institutions; the prisons, the courts, and the police, there is a sense of the cyclical. All have ended up today as dictatorial tools of control, just has they were in the colonial state. Broadly they have all evolved and changed along similar paths, experiencing an initial promise of liberalism immediately post-independence, but soon falling back into repression. Both colonial and post-colonial regimes have made attempts to obfuscate and moralise their actions but ultimately have not been able to disguise the purpose of the prisons, police, and courts. This I do not find unsurprising. The people who serve in the legal institutions of a state are by their very profession loyal to that state, otherwise they would not serve in those institutions. Their purpose is to serve the state’s morals and policies, and ultimately they are resigned to place their faith in a power beyond themselves.

Author/Publisher: Louis Lorenzo

First Published: 15th of March 2018

Last Modified: 15th of March 2018

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