Coups Ain’t What They Used to Be

Want to take over the state? You don't need to put tanks in the street anymore.


There are no tanks in the streets. Military marches aren’t blaring from the radio. But talk of coups seems to be everywhere. The Egyptian military government’s on June 14 — just prior to the announcement of presidential election results — has been widely described as a "slow-motion coup." The Pakistani Supreme Court’s dismissal of two prime ministers in less than a week has been called a "judicial coup." Former Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo has called his rapid impeachment last week a "parliamentary coup." The Atlantic’s James Fallows even responded to the U.S. Supreme Court’s possible ruling against President Barack Obama’s individual health-care mandate with a blog post titled, "5 Signs the United States is Undergoing a Coup."

In each of these cases, there has been a lively debate over whether the use of the word "coup" is warranted (except perhaps in the case of Fallows, who decided to tone down his own headline later in the day). The term coup d’état (literally "strike of state") has been in use since French King Louis XIII took power by exiling his own mother in 1617, though the basic concept is much older. The United States aside, the real question today should be not whether these are coups, but what kind they are. The modern coup d’état can be divided into three — possibly four — somewhat overlapping types.

First, there’s the classic military coup that was prevalent in Africa and Latin America during the Cold War. The definition here is fairly narrow. "One, it’s an abrupt event, not a gradual changing of laws," says political scientist and forecaster Jay Ulfelder. "Second, there’s some aspect of illegality. Third, there’s the use or threat of force. All of that defines what just happened in Egypt or Paraguay out of the picture, but it’s not what many people mean when they say ‘coup.’"

The most recent example of an old-school coup was the Malian government’s overthrow by the military on March 21. The governments of Fiji, Mauritania, Madagascar, Niger, and Guinea-Bissau have also been overthrown by relatively by-the-book coups since 2006. Despite these examples, classic military coups are still fairly rare these days compared with the height of the Cold War (1964 alone saw 12 military coups).

So where have all the coups gone? In a widely cited 2011 paper, political scientists Hein Goemans and Nikolay Marinov attribute the decline of military coups to the end of Cold War superpower competition. Whereas military juntas could once count on the support of either the Soviet Union or the United States depending on their ideological orientation, in the post-Cold War world, political stability is more valued and coups are frowned upon. Goemans and Marinov also argue that coup governments are now more likely to revert to at least semi-democracy in a short period of time (this has already happened in Niger) rather than face international isolation and sanctions.

The second type is the self-coup — known in Spanish as an autogolpe — in which a government that came to power through democratic means gradually erodes a country’s democratic institutions to keep itself in power permanently. The Peruvian autogolpe of 1992, in which President Alberto Fujimori dissolved Congress with the help of the military, is a classic example. Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Russia’s Boris Yeltsin have also been accused of instituting slow-motion self-coups. The "deep state" operated by the Pakistani military and security apparatus is arguably a type of perpetual self-coup as well.

Some have termed the recent actions of Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) an autogolpe, but the label doesn’t completely fit because the SCAF was never democratically elected to begin with. Steven A. Cook, an Egypt expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that a better precedent for Egypt may be Turkey’s 1997 "post-modern coup," in which the military brought down an Islamist government through behind-the-scenes pressure and leaks to the media rather than through an overt military show of force. "The defining characteristic of a post-modern coup is not putting troops on the streets," Cook said in an interview with Foreign Policy. "Instead, you have the informal institutions of the state and past patterns of civil-military relations at work. It’s a more subtle kind of way to get what they want." Indeed, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, leader of the SCAF, reportedly requested a translated copy of Turkey’s 1982 Constitution, which gives the military wide oversight powers, shortly after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak.

Cook argues that "post-modern coups" demonstrate the frailty of a military regime. "The Turkish military is actually pretty weak because it’s always had to intervene to keep the political system along the lines that it wants," he says. Cook predicts that because of popular pressure, Egypt’s military authorities will have an even more difficult time than their Turkish counterparts in maintaining control over political developments.

Finally, there seems to be an emerging form of hybrid coup, in which the military takes power through use of force but provides at least a fig leaf of legal justification for its actions. The textbook example may be the 2009 Honduran constitutional crisis, which saw the removal of leftist President Manuel Zelaya from power. On the one hand, Zelaya’s residence was stormed by the military, which forced him onto a plane out of the country in an echo of Latin American coups of old. On the other hand, the country’s Supreme Court had, a day earlier, found him answerable to charges of treason and abuse of authority. Further complicating matters, Zelaya was accused by his opponents of instituting a kind of autogolpe by pushing for a referendum to eliminate presidential term limits.

The Paraguayan Senate’s unprecedented move to impeach Lugo over the course of only a few hours without any chance to mount a defense — termed a "golpeachment" by some — over the killing of 17 landless peasants in clashes with the police, also falls into the hybrid category. The conservative political establishment that has long opposed the leftist Lugo, who has exhibited some autocratic tendencies, seems to have found a convenient way to push him out. It may not have been technically illegal, but it wasn’t particularly democratic either. Brazil and Argentina have withdrawn their ambassadors from the country to protest Lugo’s removal.

Hybrid coups are extremely difficult to judge from the outside. After the ouster of Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed in February, the United States initially recognized what seemed like a legitimate and lawful transfer of power following months of conflict between the president and his security forces, before it became clear that Nasheed had been forced to relinquish his position at gunpoint. Nasheed was also accused by opponents of undermining democracy by interfering with the country’s judiciary. And in the case of Honduras, many conservative commentators in the United States continue to maintain the legitimacy of Zelaya’s ouster.

Ulfelder says that in Latin America, the ongoing ideological dispute between leftist governments led by Chávez and his allies and their conservative opponents makes it hard to find objective views on whether a transfer of power is legitimate or not. "The leftist view is that it’s democracy versus nefarious elite forces on the right and that these things are coups for sure," he notes. "Those on the right say the real issue is Chavismo as a regional threat comparable to communism and that these are legitimate efforts to reinstate democracy." In other words, whether you see these actions as coups or reinstatements of democracy likely depends on your own political sympathies.

The end of the Cold War has indeed made traditional coups more difficult to carry out — a welcome development no matter which side of the political spectrum you fall on. But recent events show that anti-democratic leaders have more subtle ways of increasing their power, and their opponents are often willing to stage power grabs of their own in the name of defending democracy. No one’s hoping for a return to tanks on the streets, but it is often much harder these days to figure out who the bad guys are.

Joshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.