Emergency Powers on the Rise: Case Studies

Chapter 1
Emergency Powers on the Rise: Case Studies

There has been a resurgence of emergency measures during the opening years of the twenty-first century, primarily in response to 9/11, but also to the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen; the global financial crisis; climate change; recurring natural disasters; social and political unrest; and revolutionary upheavals. Not only has the frequency of such measures increased, but also the breadth of the situations in which they have been invoked. The following case studies provide a picture of the rise of emergency powers.

Social and Political Unrest: Emergency Powers Invoked in Greece, Egypt and Canada

During 2012 and 2013, governments in Greece, Egypt and Canada adopted or promulgated emergency provisions in response to strikes and protests by working-class people and students against austerity measures. This resort to authoritarian forms of rule highlighted the capacity of emergency measures, including those supposedly intended to deal with natural disasters or terrorist threats, to be used to suppress popular unrest, particularly under deteriorating economic and social conditions.


In January 2013, the Greek government placed striking Athens metro rail workers under martial law, forcing them back to work under pain of imprisonment. Hundreds of police stormed the central subway depot to break up a workers’ occupation of the depot, arresting a number of workers. Solidarity strikes by other public transport employees were subsequently declared illegal as well.

The ‘civil mobilisation’ law used to attack the strike was supposedly intended for use only in case of a natural disaster, a massive danger to public health or the outbreak of war. Since the end of the Greek colonels’ dictatorship in 1974, it had been invoked only nine times – including three times between 2010 and 2013. In 2010, it was utilised to force striking lorry drivers back to work, and in 2011 it was used against sanitation workers.

The strike by subway workers expressed the intense popular opposition to the sweeping attacks on Greek workers’ living standards. The strike was directed against the fifth round of post-2008 austerity measures, passed by parliament on the orders of the ‘troika’ – the European Union (EU), the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank. The new austerity package included a further 25 per cent public sector wage cut, on top of wage cuts of up to 60 per cent imposed over the previous three years.

After using emergency powers to break the nine-day strike by subway workers, the New Democracy-led coalition government extended its orders to 2,500 rail and tram workers who had struck to protest against the repression of the subway workers. Such ‘civil mobilisation’ orders conscript those targeted into the military and carry the threat of mass firings, arrests and jail sentences of up to five years.

The turn to emergency powers to crush workers’ resistance was by no means confined to Greece. In 2010, as Europe-wide EU austerity programmes began, several major strikes – by Greek truckers, Spanish air traffic controllers and French oil refinery workers – had been ended by police and army interventions.


In January 2013, Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi declared a 30-day state of emergency in three Suez Canal cities as protests begun on the second anniversary of the 2011 Egyptian revolution spread throughout the country. Police and army units fired live ammunition, killing dozens of people and injuring hundreds, while protesters attacked police stations and offices of Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in cities across Egypt.

Mursi imposed a state of emergency on Port Saïd, Suez and Ismailia, as well as a 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew. The state of emergency allowed the police and military to detain protesters indefinitely without charge and prosecute them in military courts, to suspend constitutional rights and to censor the press.

Before 2011, Hosni Mubarak had ruled throughout his 30-year presidency under a state of emergency. Mursi’s decision to reimpose it to crush protests underscored how quickly the new regime had returned to similar methods, as it also sought to impose austerity measures required by the International Monetary Fund, in return for a $US4.8 billion loan.

Six months later, this repression helped pave the way for a new military coup in July 2013, installing a junta that later imposed an anti-protest law to effectively ‘legalise’ its violent crackdown on protests and strikes, and threatening participants with extensive jail time and heavy fines. In January 2014, having carried out mass arrests and outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood, the junta called a referendum to legitimise its coup and enshrine continued military dictatorship in a constitution (Stern 2013).

Ever since the British occupation of Egypt, the country has been under emergency rule of some kind almost continuously. The British first declared martial law in 1914 (see Chapter 4). Since then, its people have suffered a ‘dizzying array of exceptional measures and courts’, making it an example of ‘endless emergency’ (Reza 2006: 533).


The recourse to emergency powers was not limited to the most impoverished or marginalised countries. Similar measures were invoked in Canada during 2012 in a drive to halt a students’ strike. Although adopted by legislation, the Canadian provisions exemplified the adoption of far-reaching powers to suppress basic democratic rights, including freedom of expression and assembly, and the right to strike.

In May 2012, the government of the province of Quebec introduced Bill 78, officially titled ‘An Act to enable students to receive instruction from the postsecondary institutions they attend’ (LQ, 2012, c. 12/Laws of Quebec, 2012, chapter 12), which was passed by the National Assembly of Quebec. The law restricted protest or picketing on or near university grounds, and required organisers of a protest consisting of 50 or more people in a public venue anywhere in Quebec to submit their proposed venue and/or route to the relevant police for approval.

Bill 78 suspended winter semester classes at 11 universities and 14 colleges where over 150,000 students were demonstrating or continued to demonstrate, and specified that classes for the autumn and winter semesters at those locations would be completed later in 2012. The Minister of Education, Recreation and Sports was granted the ability to deem as not applicable certain other regulations or laws or to ‘[prescribe] any other necessary modification to’ Bill 78 so as to provide for any dispositions deemed necessary to ensure the continuation of classes throughout the duration specified by the act.

The law made it illegal to deny a person access to any place where that person had a right to be, and further restricted ‘any form of gathering’ that might cause such denial from assembling inside any educational building, on the grounds of such a building and within 50 metres of the limits of those grounds. The bill established a date after which all education employees had to return to work, and prohibited them from striking should this, ‘by act or omission’, prevent students from receiving instruction or indirectly impede services (Jones 2012).

The Obama Administration and Emergency Powers

As well as being closely involved in the states of emergency declared by state governors in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 and Baltimore, Maryland, in 2015, President Obama personally invoked emergency or extraordinary powers on numerous occasions. Three prominent instances indicated an ongoing trend.

1. The Military-Police Boston Lockdown of 2013

In April 2013, a major American city was placed under the equivalent of martial law. On 15 April, two bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon in the city’s centre. Three people were killed and over 170 were injured, some seriously. This was a criminal act with tragic consequences. But it became the pretext for a massive mobilisation of military, police and intelligence forces. Thousands of heavily armed police and National Guard troops occupied the streets, backed up by machine gun-mounted armoured vehicles, Humvees and Black Hawk helicopters in scenes that resembled the US occupation of Baghdad.

President Obama declared an emergency in Massachusetts and ordered the Department of Homeland Security Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to coordinate all disaster relief efforts and ‘provide appropriate assistance for required emergency measures, authorised under Title V of the Stafford Act, to save lives and to protect property and public health and safety, and to lessen or avert the threat of a catastrophe’ (Obama 2013a).

The people were told to remain indoors while police, with automatic weapons drawn, conducted warrantless house-to-house searches. Some of those who strayed out of doors were surrounded by police and ordered to go home. The mass transit system was shut down; passenger train service along the northeastern corridor was halted; businesses, universities and other public facilities were closed.

Boston – the cradle of the American Revolution, and the country’s premier centre of higher education – was turned into an armed camp, all supposedly to track down a 19-year-old youth allegedly involved in the bomb attacks. Following the capture of the suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, President Obama issued a late-night statement from the White House in which he stressed the role of his administration in the police-state mobilisation, boasting that he had ‘directed the full resources of the federal government … to increase security as needed’. Ignoring the presumption of innocence, he referred to the captured suspect and his dead brother as ‘these terrorists’ (Obama 2013b).

The Justice Department announced that it would not read the suspect his ‘Miranda right’ to remain silent and obtain legal counsel before speaking to police investigators. It would instead question the seriously injured youth ‘extensively’ not just on matters related directly to public safety, but more broadly on ‘intelligence matters’. This sets a precedent for denying these rights to anyone arrested under anti-terrorism statutes, which has already included political dissidents such as Occupy Wall Street and anti-NATO protesters (Cockburn 2013).

2. President Obama’s Drone Assassination Memorandum

A long-suppressed Justice Department memorandum released in 2014 established that President Obama, in the most calculated and criminal manner, authorised the murder of an American citizen, Anwar al-Aulaqi. The memo supported the targeting and drone killing of a man far from any battlefield, who was never charged with a crime (Miller 2014). Its tortured logic underscored the premeditated character of the act.

The drone attack that killed Aulaqi and three others in Yemen on 30 September 2011 – including a second US citizen, Samir Khan – was not carried out in the heat of battle. Neither was the drone attack one month later that obliterated Aulaqi’s teenage son. The assassinations of selected US citizens was part of the White House’s ongoing campaign of drone attacks, which have killed many thousands of people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and other countries.

Obama’s secret decision to place Aulaqi on his ‘kill list’ was leaked to the press in April of 2010. The memo by the then head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, David Barron, claiming that the Constitution and US laws gave the president the power to kill a US citizen without charge or trial, was sent to Attorney General Eric Holder in July 2010. Aulaqi’s father filed a suit in federal court to remove his son from the kill list, but the case was thrown out in December 2010 (see Chapter 3).

Thus the extra-judicial killing of Aulaqi was organised over a protracted period of time. Aulaqi had not been indicted prior to his killing. In fact, it was not established that he had committed a criminal act. None of the assertions by the government of his role as an ‘operational leader’ of an Al Qaeda group or his alleged involvement in terror plots against the US were substantiated, although Barron’s memo treated them all as indisputable fact.

Even if Aulaqi engaged in propaganda hostile to the policies of the US government, such behaviour is not necessarily criminal, let alone grounds for execution without trial. There has been no congressional investigation into the killing of Aulaqi. There have been no public hearings. There has been no move to impeach Obama or prosecute him.

It is notable that the memorandum deals only cursorily with the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution, which states: ‘[N]or shall any person … be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law’. These words were not cited in the memo.

Instead, the memo restated the pseudo-legal argument that in prosecuting the ‘war on terror’ against Al Qaeda and ‘associated forces’, the president and his unelected military/intelligence aides have virtually unlimited powers, including the power to wage war and carry out killings, kidnappings and indefinite detention anywhere in the world, including within the US itself.