On Justice: Peasants, Petitions and the State in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Egypt

Document Type


Publication Date

Winter 1-18-2016


The historiography on peasant–state relations in agricultural societies includes the recognition of peasants as actors in their own right that did not wait passively to be acted upon by the ruling elite. Yet, most often, these discussions examine peasant–state relations within the framework of peasant mistrust of and resistance to the state. This paper focuses on peasant petitioning practices in mid-nineteenth-century Egypt and seeks to present a more nuanced interpretation of peasants’ attitude towards the state by addressing two questions: What were the major elements of state discourse on justice for the peasantry? Were the peasants cognizant of this discourse? My examination of the relevant archival evidence reveals the peasants’ propensity for peaceable engagement with the state. Indeed, peasants were familiar with state bodies and rules, and fully expected the state to deliver on its promise to ensure justice.