In-focus: Liberties in times of war

Galal Nassar
Friday 9 Mar 2018

All states curtail freedoms in times of war or national emergency, including states that champion civil liberties

The rhetoric of the Egyptian state and its institutions focuses on Egypt’s battle against terrorism, the troops, brigades and battalions on the ground fighting armed combatants targeting the country’s security and stability inside, and on the borders, and in the precious land of Sinai.

Despite sweeping mass support for Operation Sinai 2018, some media expressions, campaigns and rumours try to distort this support and distract public opinion with marginal issues.

This has hindered decisions and measures regarding freedoms and how they are impacted in times of war, which is common practice in democracies everywhere.

The state reiterates that we are in a real war situation but no one explains the role of individual citizens and institutions and measures that are required in times of war.

The state only gives the army orders to go to battle, but civilian society is given no directions, and catastrophically the media has no idea of its role in times of war and peace. This makes measures seem alien to the general mood and the challenges facing the state, due to the media and politicians focusing on the sacrifices of martyred soldiers and their families.

They believe this is enough for the audience to understand their role and measures by the authorities, but experience shows that declaring war must be accompanied with clear statements regarding a timeline — when it starts and when it ends. There are no set rules for these extraordinary measures, so each country can decide according to circumstance.

The objective truth is citizens in democratic countries facing challenges or war accept measures that take away public freedoms as an exception to the rule due to emergency circumstances facing the country.

Professor Geoffrey R Stone, Edward H Levi Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago, believes freedoms are the first victims of war, and democracy in the US experienced limitations on freedoms during war since its birth and throughout all its wars at home and abroad.

In 1798, less than 10 years after adopting the Bill of Rights, the US was embroiled in the Quasi War between France and Britain which led to divisions between the Federalists who supported Britain and Republicans who sided with France.

Since the Federalists were in power at the time, the government of president John Adams took several defensive measures that hurled the US into an undeclared state of war with France.

The Republicans strongly opposed and the Federalists accused them of treason. Adams declared Republicans will “sink the glory of our country, and prostrate her liberties at the feet of France”, and Federalists passed the Alien and Sedition acts in 1798.

The Alien Act gave the president the power to deport non-citizens viewed as a threat to the peace and safety of the US, and did not give non-citizens the right to speak, submit evidence or legal recourse to defend themselves. Effectively, this law banned any criticism of the government, Congress and the president with the intent to disparage or slander.

The law was forcefully applied but only against Republican supporters, while public prosecutors sued all major Republican newspapers and most Republicans who were sharp critics of Adams’ government.

During the American Civil War, the state faced the most serious threat when loyalties were deeply fractured. Military and political lines constantly shifted and opportunities for espionage and sabotage became easy, while 600,000 died in battle.

Under such circumstances, with strong and sometimes violent opposition to the war, draft and Emancipation Proclamation, president Abraham Lincoln was forced to strike a balance between conflicting military necessities and individual liberties.

Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus eight times (the writ of habeas corpus allows the court to decide if a person is imprisoned unlawfully, and is a constitutional right that cannot be suspended “unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion of public safety”).

The most radical of these suspensions allowed the military to arrest “all persons guilty of any acts of treason”, which led to the extrajudicial arrest of more than 38,000 civilians without legal review of their arrests.

Civil liberties during World War I were even more disconcerting in many aspects, when the US joined the war in April 1917.

There was strong opposition to the war and the draft, with many declaring the US’ goal is not “to make the world safe for democracy” but to protect the investments of the wealthy.

President Woodrow Wilson lost patience with the opposition and warned that treason “must be crushed out” and that treason “is not a subject for discussion”. He also declared that dissidents have “sacrificed their rights to civil liberties”.

In November 1917, US attorney-general Thomas Watt Gregory warned those who interfered with the war effort: “May God have mercy on them, for they can expect none from an outraged people and an avenging government.”

The same is true during the time between the two world wars, as well as all other US wars. Society accepts diminished freedoms, criticises this in retrospect and corrects course after the war is over.

There is no simple recipe for balancing extraordinary measures and liberties at times of war, and I am not writing this article to justify or attack such measures.

Rather, to establish a historical reality confirming that states automatically resort to these measures to confront extraordinary threats, and society must accept them. Also, to establish the fact that societies accept these measures when there is a threat to society’s democracy, stability, safety and freedoms.

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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