Yes, That’s a Coup in Egypt

Apparently, some of the protesters who support what the Egyptian army is doing right now claim it isn’t a coup because they believe it expresses the popular will, and the U.S. and the E.U. so far refuse to stick a label on it.

Well, I hate to break it to those people, but in any conventional sense of the term, this is a coup. Here are a few of the definitions used by leading scholars of coups and civil-military relations. First, Monty Marshall, who compiles a data set on coups and coup attempts for the Political Instability Task Force (scroll down to the Polity IV section here):

A coup d’état is defined as a forceful seizure of executive authority and office by a dissident/opposition faction within the country’s ruling or political elites that results in a substantial change in the executive leadership and the policies of the prior regime (although not necessarily in the nature of regime authority or mode of governance).

Now Jonathan Powell and Clayton Thyne from the coding rules for their Coup d’état Dataset:

[Coups d’etat are defined as] overt attempts by the military or other elites within the state apparatus to unseat the sitting head of state using unconstitutional means…there is no minimal death threshold for defining a coup. A coup attempt is defined as successful if the coup perpetrators seize and hold power for at least seven days.

Last but not least, Samuel Huntington from his 1968 classic, Political Order in Changing Societies:

The distinguishing characteristics of the coup coup d’état as a political technique are that: (a) it is the effort by a political coalition illegally to replace the existing governmental leaders by violence or the threat of violence; (b) the violence employed is usually small; (c) the number of people involved is small; (d) the participants already possess institutional bases of power within the political system.

Force deployed? Check. By political insiders? Check. Chief executive replaced? Check. Legal procedures not followed? Check.

That the army’s apparent ouster of President Morsi may be popular doesn’t make it legal or erase the fact that he only “agreed” to go when coerced. That military leaders may not claim executive authority for themselves does not obviate the fact that they are pushing out a sitting president at gunpoint. That the coup could push Egypt onto a more positive trajectory doesn’t change the nature of the initial act.

On that last point, I’ll emphasize the word “could.” It’s impossible to say with confidence what comes next for Egypt. I’ve seen a number of people list infamous coups from the past (Algeria, Argentina, Chile, Iran…) as evidence that military intervention always makes things worse, but I’ve also seen a recent study by Nikolay Marinov and Hein Geomans showing that coups in the post-Cold War period have been less damaging to democratization:

Whereas the vast majority of successful coups before 1991 installed durable rules, the majority of coups after that have been followed by competitive elections… While the coup d’état has been and still is the single most important factor leading to the downfall of democratic government, our findings indicate that the new generation of coups has been far less harmful for democracy than their historical predecessors.

Again, I don’t know what comes next in Egypt, but I think the folks using historical analogies to argue that a coup can only make things worse there are ignoring an important source of bias in their analysis. Maybe coups are bad for the health of the polity, but there’s a selection effect at work here, too. Coups happen in situations that are already crappy, and the set of plausible counterfactuals in these crappy situations rarely includes a sharp turn for the better. A coup in Egypt might delay democratization and further damage the already-reeling economy, but it’s hard to imagine an alternative path from June 30 that is both politically realistic and looks a whole lot better. This is the common tragedy of transitional politics, and Egypt appears to be no exception.

Leave a comment


  1. Grant

     /  July 3, 2013

    They might be considering Turkey’s example, or at least pre-Erdogan Turkey’s example.

  2. cshendrix

     /  July 4, 2013

    Excellent post, Jay. I’d suggest that another one of Huntington’s favorite concepts from the same era, praetorianism, seems like it might be fruitfully applied here.

    • Thanks, Cullen, and yes, absolutely. On Twitter, a couple of people also pointed out that Huntington identified different types of coups according to their goals, and this one would seem to fit squarely under his notion of a “guardian coup.”

  3. Thomas Dekkers

     /  July 4, 2013

    One coup that turned out positive was Portugal’s 1974 “carnation revolution”.

  4. bob

     /  July 4, 2013

    yeah, this is basiscally a coup, but one with a tremendous level of popular and institutional support, many egyptians i spoke to said the numbers over the past few days were greater than those which lead to mubaraks downfall. almost every segment of egyptian society, not just the urban middle and upper classes were represented in these protests. not sure how this fits with the concept of a “coup” but has to be taken into account.

  5. Yasser

     /  July 4, 2013

    you guys are so cute with your little definitions which you try to fit to the big wide world out there. while you are at your desks and before you change into your pyjamas for bed, here is a little quiz for the A student: provide a label – to be supported by at least two definitions in two different books – for the the american “revolution”: (a) a rebellion (b) a coup (c) a rebellion precipitating a coup.

    • Grant

       /  July 4, 2013

      Based on your argument you could say that when a large group of civilians go out on the street and start smashing things and hurting people because several white officers weren’t put in prison for beating a black man, it’s silly to call it a “riot”. It might be a “social gathering” or a “demonstration”.
      Simply because people weren’t actually at the event and many people with varying degrees of insight debate it doesn’t mean that one of those definitions can’t be more precise than the others.

      And there’s a major difference between a “coup” and a “rebellion”. One tends to involve armies clashing against each other (even in guerrilla warfare), for one thing.

  6. Definitely not a coup!
    The initiator here is not some power elite that is attempting a usurp a well establish presidency. This emerged out of a grass root movement that has been working for months gathering signatures and calling for early presidential elections. Millions have been signing those forms as it was pretty clear that they could ill afford three more years of this pathetic democratically elected autocracy.
    To be clear the president did not have a clearly defined job description when he came to power. The constitution was not in place. So they did not agree to the limits and extent of his powers. That was a sad outcome of the SCAF’s fumbling “democratic” transition.
    A governing constitution was been cobbled up the Islamist and hoisted on a tired and battered populace that was yearning for any for of stability. It had no provisions for impeachment and had no clear process for handling the case where the vast majority of the electorate see that the highest elected official is working against the country’s best interests. Morsi has been is many ways worse than Mubark in that his singular accomplishment has been in fomenting divisions and sectarian strife.
    It this was coup, so should the Jan 25 revolution be a coup and every other revolution in history as well.
    American calling this the coup, would do well to read Federalist Papers to understand how much effort the constitutional drafters put in trying to insure the unity of their nation.
    A president who fails to maintain the unity of his country and tears it apart must be removed from power. Millions of Egyptian realized that and army was the executor of their popular will.

    • Oral Hazard

       /  July 5, 2013

      The military suspended the Egyptian constitution. By definition, that makes this an extra-legal action and a usurpation of civil authority. Jay’s piece addresses your point that Egypt has been in transition, but the nascent aspect of Egyptian democracy doesn’t change sound definitions. Given the vast demonstrations taking place before the event, it may well be that the Egyptian military’s motives were “patriotic” to maintain order and avoid violence between factions. When civilian rule of law is suspended, you’re most likely in a state of civil war, anarchy, or coup. How many Egyptians voted to elect the head of the military or the current interim president?

      • None. But they sure as hell trust a great deal more than the pathetic excuse for a president, Morsi.

    • Dell

       /  July 5, 2013

      Why can’t it just be a grassroots coup? The word coup refers to the mechanism by which a politician is removed from power, not by the motives of the removers.

      • Call it what may please you. But if this was a coup, so was Jan 25, 2011.
        I guess it is only defined as a revolution and a “spring” when the state department blesses it. Otherwise it is a god damn coup.

  7. afdsfs

     /  July 8, 2013

    This shows the fallacy labeling by dictionary. Sure it may be a coup as defined in any text, but the reason why the anti-Morsi and U.S. government might be reluctant to label it a coup is because something is different in this case, and by shoehorning this with the traditional definition of coup obscures all the important moral and legal considerations on why 1) this was morally permissible 2) why the U.S shouldn’t drop aid 3) why this was a good thing on the whole.

    Say you have a democratically elected government supported by 100% of the people, that starts to usurp more and more power, then starts to torture and brutalize it’s people. Then 100% of the people appeal to the military to do something, the ensuing conflict meets every one of your criteria, it occurs in 2 hours and then the government is turned over to citizen control.

    Now, this would certainly meet every definition above. But by labeling a coup without qualifier doesn’t not properly explain the nuance which justifies the 3 points above. People should stop saying it’s a coup. Not because it wasn’t, it was. They should say ‘this is a coup, but it is a coup different than almost any in history, and this is why it was morally, legally justified, is the best thing for the liberty of Egyptians, and why the U.S. shouldn’t drop aid.’

  8. Newhope

     /  July 27, 2013

    A coup or not a coup that’s the question. Can someone please update Shakespeare.

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  5. I·CONnect – Egypt: Democratic Coup?
  6. Coup Be Coup | Political Violence @ a Glance
  7. ¿Qué es un golpe de Estado? | Blog de la redacción
  8. ElBaradei set to become interim Egyptian prime minister in post-Morsi gamble for ‘reset’ | Suffragio
  9. Egypt Coup : Engineered by military and supported by elite and West | Mere Do Paisay
  10. A Response To Egypt: It IS a Coup | The Olive Tree
  11. Long Live Egypt's Democratic Revolution - New Public Sphere
  12. ¿Qué es un golpe de Estado? | Politikon
  13. What Can Research on Coups Tell Us About Egypt? | Symposium Magazine
  14. Coups Slow Economic Growth | Dart-Throwing Chimp
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  20. Die Mär vom „demokratischen Putsch“ in Ägypten | WZB Democracy
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  25. The Myth of the “Democratic Coup” in Egypt | WZB Democracy
  26. Forecasting Coup-ish Events | Dart-Throwing Chimp

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