Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Sometimes coups are democratic

  • Print

WASHINGTON -- Deposed president Mohamed Morsi's national security adviser has described what's happening as a "military coup," and by the traditional definition of that term -- "when the military or a section of the military, turns its coercive power against the apex of the state, establishes itself there, and the rest of the state takes its orders from the new regime" -- this certainly seems to fit the bill.

So how, then, are supporters of democracy in Egypt -- both the crowds in Tahrir and foreign observers -- to think about these events? Traditionally, military coups are thought of as the antithesis of the democratic process -- raw political power being wielded through the barrel of a gun rather than a ballot box. In fact, according to U.S. law -- albeit a frequently skirted law -- foreign aid cannot be provided to governments that took power in military coups. (However they respond to this week's events, don't expect Obama administration officials to be throwing around the word "coup.")

But are there cases when a coup can advance democracy? In a 2012 article for the Harvard International Law Journal, Ozan Varol, now a professor at Lewis & Clark Law School, argues that while the vast majority of military coups are undemocratic in nature and lead to less-democratic political regimes, there are significant examples of "democratic coups d'©tat."

If the concept seems ridiculous, consider the fact that this week many westerners are celebrating an armed uprising to overthrow an autocratic government. Why are bloody insurgencies sometimes considered legitimate but not actions taken by established militaries acting on behalf of disenfranchised citizens?

Varol cites three case studies: the 1960 Turkish coup in which the military overthrew the ruling Democratic Party, which had gradually consolidated political power and cracked down on political opposition and the press; the 1974 Portuguese coup, also known as the Carnation Revolution, in which the authoritarian Estado Novo (New State) was overthrown by the military after tanking the country's economy and embroiling it in a series of unpopular wars in its African colonies; and -- interesting in this context -- the 2011 ouster of Hosni Mubarak.

Varol argues that there are seven characteristics a coup must generally meet in order to be considered democratic.

(1) The coup is staged against an authoritarian or totalitarian regime. (2) The military responds to persistent popular opposition against that regime. (3) The authoritarian or totalitarian regime refuses to step down in response to the popular uprising. (4) The coup is staged by a military that is highly respected within the nation, ordinarily because of mandatory conscription. (5) The military stages the coup to overthrow the authoritarian or totalitarian regime. (6) The military facilitates free and fair elections within a short span of time. (7) The coup ends with the transfer of power to democratically elected leaders.

So does what's happening in Egypt right now fit the bill? For the last two criteria, it remains to be seen. Two through five are arguably a good fit. But the first and most important one is a tough sell. Morsi was democratically elected just a year ago. To the extent that election was marred by political interference, it was to the detriment of the Muslim Brotherhood.

On the other hand, Morsi's opponents would probably argue that the Brotherhood was itself engaged in what's sometimes called a self-coup, or autogolpe, in which a democratically elected government gradually erodes the country's political institutions to keep itself in power -- in Morsi's case, increasing the power of the executive through a series of presidential decrees.

The military will argue its actions were necessary to prevent the emergence of a new authoritarian strongman. The good news is that around the world, coups now more frequently result in a quick return to the normal democratic process than in the bad old days of the Cold War. But it's also possible Egypt may be in for something like the old-fashioned Turkish model in which the government was nominally democratic but the military would step in periodically to make "corrections." There's some evidence to suggest the Egyptian military has been interested in such a model since Mubarak's ouster.

The Egyptian military's actions over the next few weeks will largely determine how history views today's events, and the danger of admitting the existence of "democratic coups" is that coup plotters almost always describe what they're doing as safeguarding democracy, even as they accumulate power for themselves. Whether something is a "coup" or a revolution, and whether a coup is democratic, is generally in the eye of the beholder.

 

Joshua Keating writes the War of Ideas blog for Foreign Policy, where he is associate editor.


-- Foreign Policy

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 5, 2013 A11

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Family of Matias De Antonio speaks outside Law Courts

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • Geese take cover in long grass in the Tuxedo Business Park near Route 90 Wednesday- Day 28– June 27, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • July 1, 2012 - 120701  -   Canada Day fireworks at The Forks from the Norwood Bridge Sunday, July 1, 2012.    John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

Do you agree with the province’s crackdown on flavoured tobacco products?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google