Last week, on July 1, the Egyptian army chief, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, went to the country’s president and demanded that he resign. “Over my dead body!” President Mohamed Morsi, the democratically elected head of government installed after a 2012 coup that deposed the 30-year presidency of Hosni Mubarak, reportedly responded. Two days later, on July 3, the general announced that Morsi was out and that the head of the constitutional court was now the interim president of Egypt.
The event had the advantage of popular support—protestors took to the streets to demand Morsi’s removal on June 30 and cheers erupted across the country after the military announced it was “suspending the constitution and appointing the head of the constitutional court as interim head of state”—but it was still highly controversial.
“How is ousting a democratically elected leader a win for democracy?” Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel tweeted. And as Barack Obama put it the night after Morsi’s ouster, he was “deeply concerned by the decision of the Egyptian Armed Forces to remove [President Morsi] and suspend the Egyptian constitution.” Coups just aren’t the way healthy democracies do business.
But while any coup around the world is troublesome for advocates of good government, it turns out that our coups are getting better, and less common.
The coup has been around almost as long as mankind has had government. Napoleon, Julius Caesar, and Leonid Brezhnev all came to power that way.
There are currently 15 world leaders who got their jobs via the coup, including the heads of state of Oman, Fiji, Madagascar, and the Congo. One source says the term coup d’état was first used in this (government overthrow) sense to describe Napoleon’s seizure of power in France in 1799. This isn’t entirely well sourced, but Napoleon is as good a place to start as any.
We’ve even had a coup in the United States. In an event known as the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898, following Reconstruction, a mob of 1,500 Democratic white supremacists illegally seized power from the legitimately elected Republican government of Wilmington, North Carolina, made up of a white mayor and a biracial city council, and installed their own politicians.
Some pundits claim that such a means of changing government really isn’t so bad. As Paul Collier argued in the Washington Post back in 2008, writing about Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe:
So how can the grossly excessive powers of the Mugabes and Shwes of the world be curtailed? After Iraq, there is no international appetite for using the threat of military force to pressure thugs. But only military pressure is likely to be effective; tyrants can almost always shield themselves from economic sanctions. So there is only one credible counter to dictatorial power: the country’s own army.
But if our own coups are rare, we often participate in those of other countries. In 1983, in Grenada, the U.S. military overthrew the government of Hudson Austin. The United States was heavily involved in the 1973 Chilean military coup that overthrew Salvador Allende when he proved too socialist—eventually Augusto Pinochet took over and established a brutal (and business-friendly) dictatorship. And in the infamous TPAJAX Project of 1953, the U.S. overthrew Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh of Iran when he nationalized the country’s oil industry.
Historically, the coup d’état has been one of the most common ways of transferring power in countries that don’t have stable democracies. Dictators often want to stay in power indefinitely, until death; coups are the primary way that they are removed from office when things sour. But a military coup is just a tactic. Military coups can, as we saw in Egypt a year ago, also topple democratically elected governments. But the mere presence of a military coup isn’t necessarily good or bad.
Many governments have come to understand how useful coups can be for an opponent—any opponent. In 1949, Costa Rican President José Figueres Ferrer abolished the country’s military after victory in a 44-day civil war, and moved its military budget over into security, education, and culture. This was done in order to safeguard democracy; the country had come to realize that all its military ever did was overthrow governments. It’s not like Costa Rica needed a massive defense system to fight back against an invasion from Bermuda.
Haitian dictator Francois Duvalier, however, gutted his country’s military in order to curtail democracy. One of his most interesting actions after winning the presidency in 1957 was to scale back the power of the military by replacing the entire general staff with loyalists and then creating a vast personal volunteer army to protect his own interests. In 1959 he created a rural militia, the Milice Volontaires de la Sécurité Nationale (or Tonton Macoutes after the Haitian term for bogeyman). In just two years this personal security force grew to twice the size of the real army. This was in a specific effort to prevent a military coup. The Tonton kept the country relatively coup-free (and the Duvalier family in power) for 29 years. When the president’s son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, was finally overthrown in 1986, his successor eliminated the Tonton Macoutes and restored most of the power of the Haitian military. Since then Haiti has had four coups.
But coups may be getting a little better—not just at successfully removing dictators from power, but at allowing people to choose their own representation. New research by political scientists Nikolay Marinov and Hein Goemans indicates that, since 1991, most of the world’s coups have resulted in elections.
Whereas the vast majority of successful coups before 1991 installed durable rules, the majority of coups after that have been followed by competitive elections. Our theory also sheds light on the pronounced decline in the number of coups since 1991. 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.
There are fewer coups, and those that do occur are far more likely to result in elections within five years.
Marinov and Goemans posit that it’s international pressure that helps determine the aftermath of these events. Countries that are heavily dependent on Western aid are more likely to hold elections after coups than those that aren’t. This was not true before 1991.
On the ground, in real countries, this gets a little complicated, however. Technically, there was a coup in Egypt. And it was followed by an election within five years, resulting in a democratically elected government … which was then overthrown by another military coup. The final outcome of all of this is unclear.
The coup offers the tempting idea that if a government is having trouble, mostly with the economy, but often also with establishing its own authority, it might just make sense to sidestep democracy—perhaps just briefly—and overthrow those in power to restore order and reset priorities by putting someone new in.
This is troubling. As Amy Davidson wrote in the New Yorker:
But there is a broader sense in which military coups in distant lands leave us, to borrow Kipling’s phrase, fluttered. Why the temptation, and why the complacency? How did we come by the conviction that certain people need the tutelage of a military junta before they can possibly be trusted to choose their own leaders? The coup in Cairo came hours before July 4th, the anniversary of a time when we were regarded as the wild children. The message in Egypt has been that the biggest crowd wins; is it really a surprise that supporters of the Brotherhood are gathering their own, and that mobs in Cairo have been fighting through the night?
If a coup isn’t a sign of a healthy democracy, it’s also not necessarily a sign that things are getting worse. Stable democracies don’t have military coups; but democratizing nations have lots of them. It may, indeed, just be part of the natural process of becoming a democracy with the rule of law. Maybe.