Egypt had one of the first organized governments. Before Upper and Lower Egypt were united, each area was ruled by a king. In 3100 BC, after the country was united into a centralized system of government, it was then divided into 42 nomes, or regions. A governor ruled each region but had to obey the pharaoh.
The pharaoh was the highest authority and had total power over the people. The pharaoh controlled the executive and judicial branches of government and was assisted by many appointed civil servants. When selecting these aides, the pharaoh had to follow the legal rules of seniority and literacy.
Government officials in the Old Kingdom held positions such as the Royal Courtiers, Advisors, Councilors, and Ministers. The Royal Court’s status grew over time and covered religious, civil, judicial, and military duties. The Advisor was the highest official in the state, but not a member of the government’s higher Council. The Council was comprised of senior state officials who enforced legislation and royal decrees and later assumed judiciary functions. The Minister was the head of the judges.
A number of administrators specialized in handling taxes, finance, public works, and labor distribution on various projects. Egypt was the first country to implement a system for workers in governmental projects such as crafts, industry, agriculture, and construction.
Courts of law existed in all Egyptian regions. Many contracts and papyri about petitions and verdicts prove that there were specific, fixed laws concerning everyday transactions such as inheritance, marriage, grants, wills, land ownership, and other commercial transactions. Everything was recorded and kept in an archive, including wills, title deeds, census lists, orders, tax lists, letters, inventories, regulations, and trial transcripts.
During the Greco-Roman age, the Ptolemaic king took the position of pharaoh and followed the system of central government. Because the priests threatened the invaders’ control, the Ptolemies tried to weaken them by stripping the temples of their properties and rights. They later changed their policy and won the priests’ support by showing respect to Egyptian beliefs and building more temples. The Ptolemies maintained the country’s division into regions with the governor as the head. The governor acquired a military character as the leader of the garrison and its financial administrator. Inside these districts there were exclusive cities for the elite Greek classes to live in, such as Nokratis, Alexandria, and Ptolemia.
The Ptolemies enacted laws prohibiting intermarriage between the Greeks and the Egyptians. During this time, the judiciary system recognized four separate sets of law for Egyptians, Greeks and foreigners, Greek cities, and the Jewish people. The “Polytium” system appeared, which was a league of all-Greek classes, acting as an independent board of a military-like nature. It also had social and religious activities and was subject to the king. The division between the Egyptians and the Greeks did not last long. Some Egyptians became attendants and administrators and marriage between Egyptians and Greeks gradually increased.
When Egypt became a Roman province, the Romans made no changes unless necessary. The Roman emperor became the pharaoh of Egypt and was portrayed in the Egyptian temples wearing the pharaoh’s double crown and clothes. The emperor directly managed Egypt’s affairs and took the leadership of the Roman Army. A new post was added in the administration which was the chief judge.
From the Roman legal point of view, Egypt’s population was divided into two basic divisions: Romans and Egyptians. However, the word “Egyptians” was used to refer to all the population of Egypt including the Egyptians, Greeks, and the Jewish people. A head tax was imposed on Egyptians but not on Roman citizens and Alexandrians, who held the right to join the army and were exempt from taxes. During the Roman era, Egyptians lived under very bad conditions because of high taxes and forced labor. Reforms applied in the third century gave Roman citizenship to everybody and the privileges enjoyed by the minority were cancelled. Decentralization was later applied by King Diocletian.
After Egypt became an Islamic province, it continued to be governed from abroad. The caliph appointed a ruler who governed Egypt and managed its affairs in the caliph’s name. He supervised collecting “Al-Kharag,” which is the tax on agricultural land. Christians and Jews paid taxes and Muslims paid Zakah. The Police Chief was responsible for preserving security and the post official was responsible for the communication between Egypt and the Center of Caliphate.