Law in a post-revolution Middle East

Faris Nasrallah

The recent uprisings in the Arab world have led to a wave of revolutions, civil wars and protests across the region. Alumnus and solicitor Faris Nasrallah (2007) assesses the effect of these demonstrations on Arab legal systems.

Since the Arab revolutions began in January 2011, countless commentators have reflected on the unfolding events. While justice, law-making and transparent legal institutions are pivotal to the Arab struggle for freedom, any detailed reform of national legal systems remains relatively unexplored. Encouraging steps towards constitutional development in Tunisia and Egypt reveal that Middle Eastern lawyers and the wider international legal community will face significant challenges in achieving representative and administrative justice across the region.

In Egypt, former President Hosni Mubarak and his two sons have been charged with fraud and premeditated murder of some participants in the revolution. They could face lengthy prison sentences if found guilty. Interior Minister Habib el-Adly was jailed for twelve years in May 2011 for money laundering, while investigations into corruption led to the arrests of other ex-ministers. In Tunisia, a one-day trial saw ousted President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali convicted of possessing illegal drugs and weapons and sentenced in absentia to fifteen years in prison. Only a month before, he and his wife were sentenced to thirty five years in prison for embezzlement and misuse of state funds. While these actions perform a crucial symbolic function in the psyche of legal practitioners, they are still a long way from achieving the kind of legal protections the peoples of Egypt, Tunisia and the wider Arab world badly need. The sturdy work necessary for rebuilding these legal systems may not be as attractive a task to foreign audiences as mass demonstrations and the physical fight for basic freedoms, but it remains just as important.

The provisional constitution of Egypt has already placed restrictions on the executive, namely by limiting the presidential term to a maximum of two four-year terms (Article 29). However, some important constitutional issues remain unanswered, namely the role of the military and the former National Democratic Party in government. Political participation, particularly the electoral framework, has been a longstanding cause for concern, leading the Supreme Court to strike down successive electoral laws over the last two decades. In Tunisia too, the outcome of the revolution will, to a large extent, be determined by ongoing constitutional debates, with the constitutional council due to start work in July 2011.

Pursuing the rule of law and good governance as they are, Arab peoples are likely to engage a broader program for legal development beyond local practitioners and foreign companies seeking to carry on business in the region. It may be 2012 or beyond until the outcome of the on-going revolutions are revealed. However it is likely that once bread, water and national dignity are redressed, constitutional and possibly other grass-roots legal revolutions across the Middle East will follow.

About the author

Faris Nasrallah joined the international law firm Trowers and Hamlins LLP in 2010 as a trainee solicitor. He started his training in London and spent six months in the company’s Dubai office. “Law in the Middle East has taken on a new relevance since these revolutions,” he says.