A Coup is a Coup

by Albert Trithart

The July 3 ouster of Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi has sparked a debate surrounding two questions: “What constitutes a coup?” and “Can a coup be good?” These questions are not merely academic; how we answer them will shape the international response to this event.

But while engaging in this debate, we should be careful not to conflate these two questions. The first—“What constitutes a coup?”—is objective, or at least it should be. By most accepted definitions, what happened in Egypt was a coup: the military removed the sitting head of state through unconstitutional means. The second—“Can a coup be good?”—is more subjective and political.

If the international community allows this second question to interfere with the first—if we shy away from calling Morsi’s ouster a coup because we are glad to see him go— the international response will be incoherent and inconsistent. Such a response could set a bad precedent, prolong the crisis, and exacerbate factional tension.

The experience of two other countries that have recently undergone analogous coups helps highlight this point. Similar debates about the characterization and justifiability of coups took place in 2009 when Honduras’s military forced President Manuel Zelaya into exile and again in 2010 when Niger’s military ousted President Mamadou Tandja.

Both Zelaya and Tandja had steamrolled their legislatures and judiciaries while attempting to bypass constitutional term limits and expand presidential power. As a result, supporters saw these coups as last-ditch efforts to restore democracy in the face of increasingly authoritarian presidents. One defender of Zelaya’s exile called it “the good coup,” and defenders of Tandja’s ouster called it a “counter-coup.” The military juntas in both countries quickly returned power to civilian-led governments through elections widely regarded as free and fair.

Democratic intentions notwithstanding, the presidential ousters in Honduras and Niger were coups, and the international community responded to them as such. The Organization of American States (OAS) unanimously voted to suspend Hondurasin accordance with the Inter-American Democratic Charter, and the African Union (AU) suspended Niger in accordance with the African Charter on Democracy, Elections, and Governance. Some governments may have been glad to see these leaders go, but most condemned the coups nonetheless.

For the international community to respond any differently to the coup in Egypt would constitute a selective and politicized application of anti-coup policy. What happened in Egypt is undeniably rooted in the Egyptian context and does not exactly parallel what happened in Honduras and Niger. But if anything, the actions of Tandja and arguably also of Zelaya likely provided more grounds for justifying a coup than did Morsi’s. The ouster of Morsi thus warrants no less condemnation.

But less condemnation is exactly what the Egyptian coup has received. International responses have varied considerably, from explicit condemnation to open support. The lack of a consistent or cohesive response exposes regional and international divisions and threatens to exacerbate the crisis as some countries line up behind the ousted leader and others behind the new one.

This reaction resembles that in Honduras following initial condemnation of the 2009 coup. Although all regional governments initially condemned the coup—which is more than can be said for Egypt—leftist governments, led by Venezuela and Ecuador, demanded the reinstatement of Zelaya, their political ally, while the U.S. and right-leaning governments favored restoring democracy through elections. Ideologically polarized responses exacerbated regional divisions and prolonged the crisis, with leftist governments refusing to recognize the ensuing elections and blocking Honduras’s readmission to the OAS.

A similarly incoherent response to the coup in Egypt could prolong the crisis and further exacerbate simmering factional tension. Moreover, such a response would set a bad precedent, increasing incentives for future coups based on expectations of limited international repercussions.

It is true that since the end of the Cold War, coups have increasingly led to democratic transitions. It is also likely true that, while inherently undemocratic, coups can be democratizing. Perhaps the coup in Egypt will have such an effect, but basing the international response on a distinction between “democratic” and “undemocratic” coups increases the risk of a polarized and polarizing international response.

The only way to ensure a consistent and cohesive response to coups is to view them objectively. The international community should thus base its response on the first question—“Was it a coup?”—rather than the second—“Was it a good coup?” The AU deserves credit for adhering consistently to this principle. The AU quickly suspended Niger following the 2010 coup and, likewise, has quickly suspended Egypt. By refraining from making a subjective judgment, Africa was the only region to offer a coherent response.

Moreover, the AU’s anti-coup framework offers a clear set of steps Egypt can follow in order to gain readmission, culminating in elections that involve none of the coup perpetrators. If the broader international community adopted mechanisms to respond in a similarly objective and structured way, it could obviate the current politicized debate surrounding the coup and move forward with supporting the restoration of democracy. As a start, the United States should immediately suspend aid to Egypt in accordance with domestic law rather than offer support to a coup based on a subjective assessment of its desirability.

About the Author

Albert Trithart earned a Master’s degree from The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy in 2013 with a focus on conflict resolution and democracy and governance. His article “Democratic Coups?: Regional Responses to the Constitutional Crises in Honduras and Niger” is appearing in the 2013 issue of the Journal of Public and International Affairs.

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