Guest Post: Egypt’s Non-Democratic Coup d’Etat

by Ozan Varol

[Ozan Varol is Assistant Professor of Law at Lewis & Clark Law School.]

Since the Egyptian military ousted President Mohamed Morsi, various commentators have pondered whether the military’s actions fit within the framework I described in an article titled The Democratic Coup d’Etat, published last summer in the Harvard International Law Journal (see here, here, here, here, and here).  In this post, I will discuss whether Morsi’s ouster was a coup—the United States remains unwilling to use the magic word—and if so, whether it constitutes a “democratic coup.”  I will conclude the post by analyzing why the Turkish government stands largely alone among foreign governments in its staunch and vocal opposition to Morsi’s ouster.

Was Morsi’s ouster a coup?  The answer is yes.  Initially, there was arguably some room for legal interpretation, primarily because the academic literature is rife with competing definitions of a coup d’état. Under most definitions, however, Morsi’s ouster was a coup from the outset. For example, Samuel Huntington defines a coup as “the effort by a political coalition illegally to replace the existing governmental leaders by violence or the threat of violence.”  Likewise, Jonathan Powell and Clayton Thyne define coups as “overt attempts by the military or other elites within the state apparatus to unseat the sitting head of state using unconstitutional means.” The Egyptian military ousted a democratically elected president through the use of extra-legal and extra-constitutional means. That is surely a coup d’état under these definitions.

Under an alternative understanding, however, a coup occurs “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.”  Charles Sampford, Coups d’Etat and Law, in Shaping Revolution 164 (E. Attwooll ed., 1991).  That is not precisely what happened in Egypt because the military established an interim government run by civilian, not military, leaders—a marked departure from the coup that deposed Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and replaced it with an interim government composed of military leaders (the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces or SCAF). Even under this alternative definition, however, Morsi’s ouster likely constitutes a coup since a constitutional declaration issued by the interim civilian President cited the military’s takeover statement as the basis of his own authority.  In other words, even though the military is not actively supervising the transition process as it did following Mubarak’s ouster, the military currently appears to be the ultimate source of governmental authority in Egypt.

Was the coup a “democratic coup”?  The answer is no.  Before analyzing that question, let me briefly summarize my article’s thesis (available for download here).  The article essentially argues that not all coups are of the same anti-democratic mold.  Although all coups have anti-democratic features insofar as they place the military in power by force or the threat of force, some military coups are distinctly more democracy-promoting than others.  In these coups, the military responds to popular opposition against an authoritarian or totalitarian regime, overthrows that regime, and facilitates fair and free elections within a short span of time. The primary historical example of a democratic coup is the coup that took place in Portugal in 1974. The Portuguese military overthrew the nearly five-decades-old Estado Novo regime, which was Western Europe’s oldest dictatorship, and facilitated democratic elections within two years.  Although the military reserved a constitutional role for itself, that role was removed after six years, establishing a thriving democracy in Portugal.  As the Portuguese case study shows, not all coups are equally a menace to democracy as some coups facilitate transitions to more democratic forms of governance.

As pertinent to the ongoing events in Egypt, the article states the following: 

A coup staged against a non-authoritarian or non-totalitarian government . . . does not constitute a democratic coup under this framework. Many coups have been perpetrated with the ostensible purpose of toppling what military leaders view as corrupt, inefficient, or shortsighted politicians. Those coups fall outside the democratic coup framework because the people may depose such politicians by voting them out of office, without the need to resort to military intervention.  A coup may be democratic only when elections are not a meaningful mechanism for deposing a political leader because that leader is unwilling to relinquish power.

The coup that occurred in Egypt therefore does not constitute a democratic coup.  The Egyptian military deposed a president who was elected just a year ago via elections characterized by many as free and fair.  To be sure, the military responded to the demands of a massive protest movement against an immensely unpopular and defiant president. There is much to criticize about President Morsi’s majoritarian governance style and the Constitution drafted under the Muslim Brotherhood’s tutelage.  But the military’s actions were premature.  Speculations aside, there was no indication at the time of the coup that Morsi would refuse to relinquish power upon an electoral loss or that any elections under his government would be rigged, as they were under Mubarak.  Had the military not forcibly removed Morsi, opposition groups may have been able to capitalize on Morsi’s unpopularity to oust him at the ballot box.  The military’s quick-fix short-circuited the established democratic procedures.

Regardless, many foreign nations, with the notable exception of Turkey, remain reluctant to label Morsi’s ouster a “coup.”  The Turkish government, however, was quick to vocally condemn it.  Prime Minister Erdogan lashed out at the Egyptian military and declared that “there is no such thing as a democratic coup d’état.”  Two Turkish commentators with ties to the Prime Minister then launched ad hominem attacks against me in government-nurtured newspapers, with no inquiry or analysis as to whether Morsi’s ouster even fits within the democratic coup mold (it does not).  One of the two commentators went as far as to suggest that Egypt’s military generals followed the theory outlined in my article in deposing Morsi in order to legitimize their actions (if they did, they overlooked some major components).

Why has the Turkish government expressed such staunch opposition to the Egyptian coup?  For two primary reasons.  First, the Erdogan government went all-in on Morsi, investing nearly $2 billion in business deals and loans.  The next government in Egypt may be less friendly to political Islam and less willing to engage with Erdogan.  Second, a conspicuous resemblance exists between the recent mass protests in Egypt and Turkey against Morsi’s and Erdogan’s majoritarian governance approaches marked by a persistent disregard of opposition groups in their decision-making processes.  Because the mass protests fueled by similar demands resulted in a coup in Egypt, the Erdogan government remains concerned about the possibility of a similar coup in its backyard, despite having subdued the historical influence of the Turkish military through legal-constitutional changes and mass prosecutions of military officers.  The Erdogan government is thus reluctant to acknowledge any theory that represents anything other than an across-the-board condemnation of all coups.

That reluctance, however, also highlights the government’s hypocrisy.  It was the same Erdogan government that celebrated the authoritarian Hosni Mubarak government’s ouster, which occurred via a coup d’état by the Egyptian military in February 2011.  The Republic of Turkey itself was founded by former Ottoman military officers led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who essentially staged a democratic coup d’état against the Ottoman Sultanate.

In the end, however, democratic coups are reserved for extreme circumstances when the use of legal and democratic avenues for deposing an authoritarian or totalitarian government would be futile.  Those conditions were not present when the Egyptian military staged its latest coup.  To be sure, the military’s ouster of the Morsi government may have the effect of producing a more inclusive, and perhaps even more stable, government in Egypt.  But the military’s premature coup against a democratically elected president also sets a pernicious precedent for the future of Egypt’s newfound democracy.

3 Responses

  1. At gut level, I agree with the  article’s overall arguments. However, I want to point out two caveats and ask the author two related questions.
    The first caveat relates to Morsi’s legitimacy as president before July 3rd. On November 22nd 2012 , Morsi issued a declaration which placed his decrees above judicial review – i.e. which gave him absolute powers. Morsi justified this as a move against judges in the Supreme Court from the Mubarak era whom he suspected were plotting to thwart his efforts to reform the country. (In other words, he claimed undemocratic measures to save a fledgling democracy; a claim not unlike the coup leaders’. Also:, Morsi may have rescinded his Nov 22nd declaration under intense street pressure, yet he kept its outcomes, two of which are non-trivial: preserving the Assembly formulating the Constitution and the new Public Prosecutor. Both are very problematic and very divisive.)
    In any democratic system, Morsi’s declaration of absolute powers (certainly not what I and others voted him into office for) renders him impeachable. For instance, in Article 2 of the US constitution , an official (including a president) who refuses to implement a court order has committed one of several kinds of High Crimes and Misdemeanours  First question: doesn’t being impeachable legally supersede being elected freely and fairly?
    The second caveat: Being impeachable does not mean an official is automatically removed from office; there should be due process. However, there is no impeachment article per se in the December 2012 Egyptian Constitution. The closest is an article which allows a super-majority vote in parliament to force early presidential elections; but there is no standing parliament. Also, referendums and elections since March 2011 may have been largely free and fair (although have been tainted by religious propaganda), but irregularities are suspected in the latest 20012 referendum on the constitution. Second question: Given Morsi’s precarious position as a president who overreached powers and , do you think free and fair elections could have been trusted? 

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  1. […] the paper are the 1960 Turkish Coup, 1974 Portuguese Coup, and the 2011 ouster of Hosni Mubarak In a post on the Opinio Juris blog yesterday day, Varol says recent events in Egypt don’t fit the […]

  2. […] the paper are the 1960 Turkish Coup, 1974 Portuguese Coup, and the 2011 ouster of Hosni Mubarak In a post on the Opinio Juris blog yesterday day, Varol says recent events in Egypt don’t fit the […]