States of emergency: Egypt, Algeria, and other countries under perpetual emergency law.

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Feb. 10 2011 5:39 PM

Can't We All Just Calm Down?

Egypt has been in a continuous "state of emergency" since 1981. Are any other countries under perpetual emergency law?

Protest in Egypt. Click image to expand.
Egyptian anti-government demonstrators hold a candlelight vigil in Cairo's Tahrir Square

On Wednesday White House press secretary Robert Gibbs called on the Egyptian government to lift the state of emergency that it's had in place continuously since the 1981 assassination of president Anwar Sadat. Are any other countries in an ongoing state of emergency?

Yes: Notably, Syria, Algeria, and Tunisia. Tunisia, the most recent addition to the list, entered a state of emergency just last month because of rioting and protests against President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. Algeria declared one in response to terrorist attacks in 1992. (Last week, though, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika pledged to lift the emergency laws "in the very near future.") Syria has been under emergency law since 1963, ostensibly to manage the continued conflict with Israel. (Israel, although not technically under a state of emergency, has had emergency regulations in place since 1945. These allow the government to arrest dissenters without due process.)

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The powers granted by emergency law vary from country to country. But a state of emergency generally leads to the suspension of constitutional protections. Syria restricts freedom of expression and censors the press and the Internet. Algeria has limited its citizens' right to assemble, along with freedom of association. Tunisians are subject to arrest if they are found in groups, and they aren't allowed on the street between 5 p.m. and 7 a.m. *

Although most Americans would be surprised to hear it, the United States is technically experiencing more than one ongoing national emergency. In 1979, during the Iran Hostage Crisis, president Jimmy Carter declared a national emergency by executive order, which every president since has renewed. George W. Bush declared a separate state of emergency after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which Barack Obama renewed.

These emergency measures are limited rather than general in nature. The 1976 National Emergencies Act set a two-year term on emergency declarations (although it's possible to extend a declaration indefinitely), and requires the president to specify what, exactly, the state of emergency empowers him to do. The Sept. 11-related emergency gives the president the right to call retired officers back into active duty (among other powers). The Iran emergency prevents American citizens and companies from entering into oil development contracts with the Islamic Republic.

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Explainer thanksEva Bellin of the Crown Center at Brandeis University, Hocine Fetni of the University of Pennsylvania, Rick Nelson of the Center for Strategic & International Studies, and Gary Shiffan of Georgetown University. Thanks also to reader Ryan Gleason for asking the question.

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Correction, Feb. 11, 2011: This article originally misstated the hours when Tunisians aren't allowed on the street. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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