One of the first concrete demands of demonstrators across the Arab world is an end to the “states of emergency” that have served as the legal basis for methods of political dictatorship. Real emergencies may briefly demand dictator-like actions (like the fireman who carries someone kicking and screaming out of a burning building); for those who wish to establish or consolidate authoritarian regimes, there is nothing better than a vague, ill-defined, and open-ended ‘emergency’.
The Arab-Israeli conflict has served that purpose for many Arab rulers. However, they are likely to be imaginative in thinking of alternative justifications to keep doing what they do. In Syria, it seems, the government is studying the possibility of replacing emergency laws with anti-terrorism laws that would allow much the same practices to continue. The surveillance of private communications, the use of torture, detention without trial, a license to execute citizens defined as terrorists, wide powers of search and seizure, and an impenetrable realm of state secrecy, are all basic techniques of control in Ba’athist Syria.
Real emergencies, often involving war, are conspicuously limited both spatially and temporally. Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, for instance, applied only to certain border areas, and was limited in duration by being tied to the defeat of a determinate opponent. Gradually, however, the state of emergency has been freed “from the wartime situation to which it was originally bound in order to be used as an extraordinary police measure to cope with internal sedition and disorder, thus changing from a real, or military state of siege to a fictitious, or political one.” (Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception) These fictitious states of emergency have no end date, because they are an intrinsic part of governance. They are vague, because they need to be flexible enough to be applied to all kinds of policies. This is why Carl Schmitt described the state of emergency, or state of exception, as referring to “a general concept in the theory of the state, and not merely to a construct applied to any emergency decree or state of siege.” (Political Theology)
In an emergency, anything might happen. As such, anything might need to be done. As such, someone needs to be capable (in the last resort) of doing anything. So goes the argument, at least. “It is precisely the exception that makes relevant the subject of sovereignty… The precise details of an emergency cannot be anticipated, nor can one spell out what may take place in such a case... The precondition as well as the content of jurisdictional competence in such a case must necessarily be unlimited.” (Schmitt) Around the extreme, hypothetical emergency, real-world scaffolding emerges. For instance, in the United States, continuity of government plans developed in the 1980s by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld called for “setting aside the legal rules for presidential succession in some circumstances, in favor of a secret procedure for putting in place a new ‘President’ and his staff...‘One of the awkward questions we faced,’ one participant in the planning of the program explains, ‘was whether to reconstitute Congress after a nuclear attack. It was decided that no, it would be easier to operate without them.’ ” (James Mann, Atlantic Monthly)
Who has ultimate authority? This was a simple matter when kings and queens ruled by divine right. As Zbigniew Brzezinski and Carl Friedrich wrote in, “the essence of the doctrine of sovereignty was that a determinate person or group of persons wield an unlimited power of deciding what is in the public interest. The truth of the matter is that, as once was said rather picturesquely by the great Sir Edward Coke, ‘sovereignty and the common law make strange bedfellows,’ by which he meant that the common-law tradition of the supremacy of the law could not be reconciled with the new theory of the state as unlimited in fact. The genuine state concept calls for an absolute ruler, an autocrat.” (Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy)
Yet in America, and in the Western democratic tradition more broadly, there is a sense that government is “of the people, by the people, and for the people”, and not merely in a rhetorical Leninist sense. This tradition, which focuses on the procedures by which policy is properly to be made (not to mention more radical traditions of popular sovereignty), has always existed in tension with the practical side of governance: what individuals in positions to make things happen, inside or outside of government, think ought to be done. Often, the people are divided, institutions are paralyzed, lobbies have produced a gridlock, and there is more ‘checking’ than ‘balancing’ going on among different branches of the government. From the standpoint of democratic tradition, this might be perfectly all right. Democracy is not based on the assumption that the people are always correct… but that it is their God-given right to be wrong. But for those worrying about more concrete policy, be it global warming or foreign policy or healthcare or infrastructure, the country may seem to be hurtling towards disaster.
Barack Obama alluded to this problem, remarking that “one of the great things about this country is we’ve got a system that’s sometimes kind of hard to change; Congress gets kind of bogged down. And part of that is because of the way the Constitution is designed. It’s served us well because it keeps us very stable. We don’t have coups and all kind of governments collapsing all the time. But the disadvantage, sometimes, is that it’s hard for us to make big, bold steps”. He then added, a little more vaguely, “the great thing about the system is that every once in a while, when we finally hit a point where things just aren’t working at all, we are able to generate the political will to get things done.” (White House, July 1, 2009)
In fact, the ‘work around’ that Western democracies have found is something we might call “emergency politics”. Crises are exploited to generate fear, shape public opinion through a pliable media, override legislative and judicial roadblocks, enhance the power of the executive to rule by decree and wield the power of the done deed. In the words of Rahm Emanuel, “Never allow a crisis to go to waste. They are opportunities to do big things.” Today, “the state of exception tends increasingly to appear as the dominant paradigm of government in contemporary politics” (Agamben). For instance, the two most dramatic policy shifts in recent American history – after 9/11, and again after the financial meltdown – were both prime examples of the “politics of emergency”. In both cases, an atmosphere of crisis put democratic politics as usual on hold while far reaching policies were implemented. A country whose Congress is routinely bogged down in debates over paltry billions, committed itself to spending trillions with minimal oversight. Ideologies with little popular support suddenly became national dogma. Rights once jealously defended, were cast aside.
Although even the most conscientious leaders might be tempted to exploit a fortuitous crisis to secure a noble aim, the structures of emergency, theoretical and material, do offer alarming opportunities for game playing. The Italian Gladio networks in the 1960s and 1970s, established as a hedge against one hypothetical emergency (a Soviet occupation of Western Europe) ended up launching false-flag attacks designed, in the words of one perpetrator, to be “the detonator which would have convinced the political and military authorities to declare a state of emergency.” Since 2008, the Turkish government has worked to unravel a high-level conspiratorial network, Ergenekon, involving senior generals, mafia figures, police chiefs, lawyers, academics, and journalists. Attacks on civilians were planned, carried out, and falsely blamed on radical Islamists “for the purpose of putting into implementation extraordinary management methods as a result of the effect caused by fear and feeling” (Ezrinican-Erzurum Indictment).
Returning to the Middle East, one can see how the conflicts between revolutionaries and reactionaries exploit the logic of emergency. In Egypt, as the protests swelled, the regime forsook its early unsuccessful attempts at direct repression and removed the police from the streets entirely. The result in many areas, unsurprisingly, was chaos, and calls for the return of order. In Syria, it seems the regime is trying to give the public a quick replay of the Muslim Brotherhood uprising in the early 1980s, reawakening a certain historical memory of pervasive insecurity and its resolution through the violent reassertion of state power. Revolutionaries, meanwhile, try to lure the emergency state into the limelight, where, provoked, regimes bare their ugly side. Revolutionaries, reactionaries, and third party troublemakers may all have their reasons for instilling terror, often under false pretences, and we cannot be too confident of our ability to discern the truth behind many episodes of violence. Lest ardent freedom-lovers be too trusting that revolutionaries will end the state of emergency to which the monarchs and presidents-for-life have clung: the state of emergency as a political device originated in the revolutionary tradition. It was the means by which a radical proponent of democracy and liberty such as Robespierre could justify ruling as a ruthless dictator. Revolutionaries, too, have enemies to be repressed, and agendas to be imposed.
Key countries in the Arab world look set directly to confront some fundamental questions about democracy. How can popular sovereignty (as dramatically symbolized in the power of protesting masses to bring down a government) be reconciled with overdeveloped state power structures and real threats to national security and unity? How can democracy stand up to the imperatives of ‘emergency’? We may learn a great deal. Much of the substance of our own democracies seems to have seeped away. As Agamben remarks about the state of exception, “though this transformation of the constitutional order (which is today underway to varying degrees in all the Western democracies) is perfectly well known to jurists and politicians, it has remained entirely unnoticed by the citizens. At the very moment when it would like to give lessons in democracy to different traditions and cultures, the political culture of the West does not realize that it has entirely lost its canon.”