Amid intense clashes throughout the country, Egypt's military-appointed government has declared a state of emergency. While this seems unsurprising in the midst of extraordinary violence, the declaration has raised the eyebrows of activists who saw the end of former strongman Hosni Mubarak's perpetual state of emergency as a key success of the 2011 revolution. The steady stream of violence may seem like a worthy reason to declare a state of emergency and limit rights such as movement or assembly, but the history of states of emergency demonstrates their danger, especially in countries in danger of a slide back to authoritarianism.
The declaration of a state of emergency is grounded in international law under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, one of international human rights’ most important conventions. Article Four of the CCPR allows certain human rights to be abrogated when the “life of the nation” is threatened and a state of emergency is formally declared. Strictly, under this provision, the declaration in Egypt seems apt. The clashes between Muslim Brotherhood supporters and the military have reached a fever pitch, with intense violence throughout the country and a continually increasing number of dead.
The danger of such declarations is in their vast expansion of the power of the executive. The judiciary, which at its most basic function is responsible for the enforcement of individual rights against an obtrusive or overzealous government, is naturally hamstrung when certain rights cannot be enforced. The limitation on the power of the legislature comes from the expediency required in such a rapidly shifting situation. Often in states of emergency consultation or permission for executive actions from the legislature requires too much time and thus is not required. Just as Alexander Hamilton wrote of war, it is the nature of states of emergency to increase the authority of the executive.
Setting aside the technical nature of the above description, what the official declaration of a state of emergency amounts to is a proclamation by one person that vastly increases his or her own power and (in most situations) requires his or her approval for action to end. At its core, this is the antithesis of modern checks-and-balances style government.
This reality has made the declaration of a state of emergency one of the most potent weapons in the dictator’s playbook. A short list of some of the world’s most infamous tyrants includes Adolf Hitler, Robert Mugabe, and Hosni Mubarak (nearly uninterrupted for 30 years). The concentration of power in a small number of hands has also ensured that while there is often an expiration date for such declarations, they are often extended or the expiration date is merely ignored.
Egypt is in a difficult situation and no one can claim to know how it will end. By any reasonable definition of the word, the country is in a state of emergency. Unfortunately, history has shown us when a government declares a state of emergency it often has ulterior motives. The declaration of a state of emergency by Egypt’s military-appointed government only vindicates voices that have long accused the military of being undemocratic. While in the declaration it is specified that the state of emergency will lapse in one month, too often throughout history such promises have gone by the wayside when it comes time for the executive to cede his near-absolute power. Let us spend the next month hoping that this situation is atypical.