February 25, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: Stubborn States of Emergency

• On February 21, the Tunisian government announced that it would be extending the nationwide state of emergency—in place since late November 2015—for another month

• On February 16, the French parliament voted to extend that country’s state of emergency—imposed after the Paris attacks—until May 26

• Governments often use states of emergency to respond to deteriorating security situations, though these powers increase the risk of overreach

• If states of emergency remain in place for too long, elements of emergency law can become institutionalized, fundamentally altering the power relationship between the government and its citizens. 


On February 21, Tunisian President Baji Caid Essebsi extended the nationwide state of emergency for an additional month in response to domestic and regional security concerns. In the long and difficult fight against violent extremism, the use of states of emergency will at times be a necessary tool for governments seeking to secure their territories and populations from an imminent terror threat. However, the adoption of emergency provisions into permanent law risks embracing a narrative in which society is never safe. Institutionalizing such alarmist-driven policies provides groups such as the so-called Islamic State with a much larger strategic victory than any singular act of terror ever could.

On February 16, the French parliament voted to extend its own state of emergency for an additional three months. The state of emergency in France has been in place since the November 2015 Islamic State assault on Paris that killed 130. The emergency powers allow law enforcement to carry out warrantless raids, and place individuals under house arrest without prior notice from a judge. Under the state of emergency, the total number of French soldiers deployed domestically rose to 17,000 immediately following the Paris attacks. 

The French government has a justifiable fear of additional terror attacks within its territory. Approximately 1,700 French citizens have traveled to fight in Iraq and Syria; five of the Paris attackers were French nationals, and four had returned from Syria in order to carry out the attacks. Despite these legitimate concerns, critics argue that because the state of emergency is in response to such a nebulous threat, there is a danger that components of emergency law could become institutionalized within the French constitution. In addition, critics claim that the increased law enforcement action targeting French Muslims—almost all of the warrantless raids have been conducted against Muslim homes and businesses—risks further alienating communities that already feel ostracized from French society. 

In Tunisia, the current state of emergency has been in place since November 24, 2015, when a suicide bomber from the Islamic State struck a bus carrying members of the Presidential Guard in Tunis. Since the popular uprising that unseated longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, Tunisia has been under a state of emergency for all but six months. The resulting emergency laws have given police and security forces extended powers of search and detention, particularly in instances related to terrorism.

As in France, the Tunisian government is justifiably concerned about the destabilizing threat posed by violent extremists. Tunisia has seen at least 6,000 of its citizens travel to fight in Iraq and Syria, the most of any country. It shares a nearly 300-mile border with Libya, where the Islamic State is actively training Tunisian fighters to return to their homeland to carry out attacks. However, as in France, there are fears that state overreach could exacerbate existing societal divides. 

The continued threat of terror attacks in Tunisia shows that emergency laws—even when imposed for years—are not sufficient to eliminate the specter of violent extremism. High levels of unemployment and corruption continue to plague Tunisia, and provide fertile ground for violent extremist narratives. The enhanced powers of the security forces also pose a risk to Tunisia’s experiment in democracy, as such powers often subvert the fundamental civil rights that were hard-won by the Tunisian people in 2011. The path to violent extremism often begins with perceived abuse by the state, making the curtailing of rights particularly perilous. 

The concerns raised in both France and Tunisia over the use of states of emergency are based on the abuse of such provisions by more authoritarian governments. The temporary state of emergency imposed—understandably—in Egypt after the October 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat was renewed every three years pro forma by the Mubarak regime for 30 years. While imposing states of emergency in the immediate aftermath of an attack may be necessary to restore stability and rebuild public perceptions of security, the potential for emergency restrictions on civil liberties becoming institutionalized over time provides terrorist groups with a much larger strategic victory. Ultimately, the institutionalization and normalization of significant restrictions on rights and liberties in response to acts of terror does more to accomplish the end goals of terrorism than further successful attacks ever could. 


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