In 2021, Egypt's government put forward a comprehensive draft law of personal status for Muslims to the parliament for review. The draft law elicited considerable controversy concerning its substance. This episode was not a usual one in Egypt which has witnessed almost total repression of any form of dissent since the new regime headed by Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, took control in the country in 2013. These measures include an effort to curtail citizenship by contracting public space for NGOs, control over public and private media production, limitations on the freedom of assembly and expression, and the right to a fair trial. Despite growing spheres of denizenship in Egyptian society through the prosecution of oppositional forces, lawyers, and a shrinking space for civil society, political contention continues regarding Muslim personal status law. Furthermore, most stakeholders were dissatisfied with the proposed substance and demonstrated this publicly despite their various positions and stances. The draft subsequently disappeared from its online platform to complicate the puzzle further, although discussions continue.
A growing scholarly literature has focused on Muslim personal status law, its reform, public debate, and its adjudication in courts in the context of Egypt. This paper seeks to build on this literature while shifting the focus to contention surrounding the law, which occurs in the context of an otherwise sharply patrolled public sphere. Taking this dramatic episode as a point of departure, the paper poses the following questions: Which actors and institutions are involved in negotiating personal status law reform, and how do they contest or accommodate each other? How do the various stakeholders harness the legacy of Islamic shari'a to bolster their demands? The paper argues that Muslim personal status law remains a subject of contentious politics, although the opportunities for bargaining between state authorities and civil society activists have become severely hampered after 2013. Second, the paper argues that despite its authoritarian disposition, the Egyptian government closely scrutinizes public debates and responds to strong societal pressures. Although the paper focuses on the period after 2013, the discussion situates the ongoing attempts at personal status reform in the context of a century of Egyptian family law reform that culminated in a series of controversial reforms enacted in a top-down fashion during the 2000s. These reforms changed both the husband-wife and parent-child relationship considerably.