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Transitional Justice in the Middle East: Egypt and the (Limited) Role of Transitional Justice

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.

By Ranime Djouider

The final instalment in this series focuses on the case of Egypt and the complex interplay between transitional justice and politics, particularly in the Middle East. Initially the Arab Spring in Egypt, beginning with the popular protests that resulted in the removal of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, brought hope of renewed democratic governance within the region. The democratic election of President Morsi and the prosecution of several police officers and political leaders – including the former President himself - hinted towards real liberalising transition within Egypt and the wider Middle East. Despite this initial optimism, the process of transition has failed to live up to its transformative potential. In part due to the continued authoritarian rule under Morsi, and now President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, but also because of the operationalisation of transitional justice by important actors, including the judiciary. Ultimately, the unsuccessful approach to transitional justice raises interesting questions as to useful conventional concepts are in practicality.

One of the key failures of the process of transitional justice in Egypt comes from the discipline itself. Models of transitional justice have conventionally taken a myopic focus, largely shaped around Western liberal scholarship.[1] Traditional scholarship has focused on the transition from illiberal states, repressive states to liberal democratic states.[2] With democracy at the forefront, transitional justice is believed to be achieved inter alia through trials, truth commissions and/or reparation systems.[3] This model of what is a successful transition places significant emphasis on such mechanisms to bring an end to authoritarian regimes and provide a form of (social) justice.[4]

However, transitional processes in practice are not as linear, and the case of Egypt highlights this well. The Egyptian government prioritised criminal trials, focusing narrowly on the protests in Tahrir Square in 2011; almost the entire focus of the transitional justice process focused on judicial proceedings, which have been bolstered by several legislative acts. While these trials do provide a credible avenue for redress, their limited scope meant that the government, including the current cabinet under President Sisi, were able to avert scrutiny or accountability;[5] as of late, no high level actors have been held accountable for the numerous human rights violations under the 25 year authoritarian rule.[6] Furthermore, the Egyptian government has arguably been able to weaponize the language of transitional justice to arguably re-entrench authoritarian rule. The heavy use of legislation within the transition process not only created a false sense of legitimacy but was also able to solidify the interests of the government.[7] Many have suggested that this highlights how transitional justice can often be used by the political elites as a pretence, suggesting a departure from the former regime but instead re-entrench authoritarian rule.[8]

Ultimately, the case of Egypt raises questions as to how far the transitional justice framework can be effectively useful, particularly in instances of non-liberal authoritarian regimes. As transitional justice scholarship has historically prioritised the path from illiberal, authoritarian states to liberal, democratic states, in practice it has in many ways failed to create a meaningful “transition”. Egypt’s engagement with transitional justice highlights both the downfalls of traditional modes of transitional justice in failing to account for ‘the diversity of transitions’,[9] and signals the clear need for more innovative responses to cases that fall outside axiomatic forms of rule. Engaging with alternative forms of transitional justice, such as grassroots organisations and civil societies has the potential to create a more robust framework for transitional justice that expands out of the boundaries of traditional, restrictive models.


Image: Alex Jay, ‘The Role of Social Media in the 2011 Egyptian Revolution’ (Student Voices, 1 June 2016) <> accessed 10 June 2021.

[1] Brian Frederking, ‘Putting Transitional Justice on Trial: Democracy and Human Rights in Post-Civil War Societies’, (2015) 91(1) ISSR 3.

[2] Kirsten Fisher and Robert Stewart (eds.), Transitional Justice and the Arab Spring (Routledge, 2014) 1-3; Vasuki Nesiah, ‘Theories of Transitional Justice: Cashing in the Blue Chips’, in Anne Orford and Florian Hoffman (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of the Theory of International Law (1st ed., OUP 2016) 779.

[3] Susanne Buckley-Zistel, Teresa Koloma Beck, Christian Braun and Friederike Mieth, Transitional Justice Theories (1st ed., Routledge 2014).

[4] Pablo de Greiff, ‘Articulating the Links Between Transitional Justice and Development: Justice and Social Integration’ in Pablo de Greiff and Roger Duthie (eds.), Transitional Justice and Development: Making Connections (1st ed., Social Science Research Centre, 2009) 60.

[5] Catherine Turner, ‘Transitional Justice in Egypt: A Challenge or an Opportunity’ (The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, 14th May 2016) accessed 5 May 2021.

[6] Elisa Miller, ‘A Closer Look at the Changes to Egypt’ (Atlantic Council, 1st October 2015) <> accessed 10 May 2021.

[7] Ruti Teitel, Transitional Justice (1st ed., OUP 2000) 52.

[8] See for example Brownyn Anne Leebaw, ‘The Irreconcilable Goals of Transitional Justice’ (2008) 30(1) Human Rights Quarterly 95; Noha Aboueldahab, ‘Transitional Justice Policy in Authoritarian Context: The Case of Egypt’ (Policy Briefing, 2017).

[9] Noha Aboueldahab, Transitional Justice and the Prosecution of Political Leaders in the Arab Region: A Comparative Study of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen (Hart Publishing, 2017) 13.

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