A military coup is a military coup

Anti Morsi protests at June 28. Source: Wikimedia (public domain).

Over the weekend, I attended a workshop with IR people from very different backgrounds. As it often happens, small-talk themes varied from workshop-related conceptual disagreements and the situation at the respective home institutions to actual political events. This time, the most prominent topic given the coup against Morsi last Wednesday was the Egyptian crisis and its causes.

What struck me most about the reactions was that a large part of the participants actually justified and legitimized the military’s actions to push Morsi out of office. This was demanded by the Egyptian people by being on the street and protesting against the ruling regime, it was often said. Morsi made too many mistakes as he was not able to improve the economic situation and because he set different groups against each other, others claimed. The military had to interfere in order to reconstitute order and in order to protect the democratic endeavor in Egypt.

Truth be told, this sucks: what is a military coup should also be named a military coup.

Official statements around the world

This also reminded me of the very hesitant official statements around the world. The reactions from most of the state officials argue in a similar vein as the academics at the workshop. I recognize two different arguments or discourses in the official statements. First, there is the group of Schadenfreude reactions. They somewhat share the fear that the Muslim Brotherhood’s power challenges their own lack of legitimacy and hence Morsi’s ouster is welcomed because of their respective domestic concerns. As the Muslim Brotherhood is mostly active in the Middle East, this kind of statements is obviously distributed by Middle Eastern countries – inter alia Syria, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Secondly, there is the group of states that want to monitor the situation, urge Egyptian people to restrain from violence, and call for the return to democratic order – see inter alia statements from US president Barack Obama, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, German FM Guido Westerwelle. The Canadian FM John Baird topped it all when referring to a “popularly-inspired military coup”. What does a popularly-inspired military coup actually should mean? When is there not a popularly-inspired military coup? The notable exception is the African Union who suspended Egypt’s membership due to an unconstitutional change of government on Friday, July 5.

I do see why some of these countries hesitate to verbally interfere in the Egyptian domestic context. Let us look at why the US hesitates to call the military’s ouster a coup. All aid assistance would automatically be cut down in the case of a military coup. So, US officials do not want to further impair the economic conditions, especially given the fact that we are also talking about aid in the military and security sector and that the military executed the coup. Egypt is also a long-term and important ally of the US in the region. But does this legitimize the inaction of the US and other countries? Can it be legitimate to not act – verbally or instrumentally – against an unconstitutional change of government?

Truth be told, this sucks: what is a military coup should also be named a military coup.

Three critiques against mincing words

Basically, my critique against my colleagues as well as against foreign policy officials is threefold. First, a democratically elected president is ousted by the military and people do not condemn this act – but only because we are talking about Egypt. There are plenty of examples when the international community was upfront against then introduced regimes in Togo in 2005 or in Libya in 1969 or many more examples. This is what I would call the stability-democracy problem. The strategic partnership with Egypt is considered more relevant than a democratic order. We are talking about the stability in the country and in the region. Yet, are we already moving towards the Arab autumn and Egypt is the crucial case? But maybe the inaction of the international community is only directed at religiously motivated parties or parties that are built on religious groups. That would be the secularity-democracy problem. As a consequence thereof, the Egyptian coup is not a coup and does not need to be condemned because it was the Muslim Brotherhood’s party which is not democratically acceptable in the first place. What do these double standards and hypocrisy shall signal to other democratizing and transitioning states? Is stability more relevant than democracy? Can one make such a claim without carrying huge normative baggage?

Second, there is the rule of law argument. There should be and there are other means than a (military) coup in order to change the government. Governments should be and are accountable to their constituency in a democratic order – either by vertical accountability to the people or by horizontal accountability to other state institutions / the law (what we refer to as checks and balances). Even if the Egyptian constitution does not provide for the right to initiate recall elections or impeachment procedures, there will be another election which opens up the chance to change the government. There is also the possibility to amend the constitution with the right to ouster the president under the condition that certain requirements will be fulfilled. But the requirement cannot be that a certain number of people is protesting in the streets. Or will it always be justifiable to initiate a (military) coup if a certain number of people utters discontent? If so, what does Egyptian crisis?

Third, there possibly are legitimate unconstitutional changes of government. Again normatively speaking, there may be some incidents when an unconstitutional change of government seems legitimate (not necessary my opinion). What if an unconstitutional power seizure will be ended by a military coup? There a lots of examples when an autocratic regime was overthrown by the military. But the question then would be whether this overthrow leads to a democratizing effect and the military is leading the transition to democratic elections or whether they seize power in order to improve their private gains. One might wonder whether this still counts as illegitimate and under what conditions this can be legitimate. We could also think of a situation when there are severe violations of human rights by the government. Yet, the Egyptian case does not show neither the overthrow of a predecessor regime that gained power through unconstitutional means nor did Morsi severely violated human rights. In fact, the predecessor regime was democratically elected. In addition to that, Morsi may have made some serious domestic mistakes, but he only did not have a keen sense to supply the wants of parts of the population. And, of course, he made some problematic decisions in the eyes of some people. But are these problems enough to justify an unconstitutional change of government?

All in all, when talking about Egypt we should actually refer to a coup d’état. It was an overthrow of a democratically elected government. There may be reasons to explain why the Egyptian military acted this way and what consequences could be derived from this incidence, but IR scholars as well as foreign policy officials should call a spade a spade: This unconstitutional change of government was a military coup d’état.

5 thoughts on “A military coup is a military coup

  1. This is an excellent post. We have a pernicious tendency to be dishonest with ourselves when political measures we usually condemn end up serving our interests. I agree with the author that we should criticize the attempts to manipulate the “coup d’État” concept. A coup is a coup even when it brings down a political movement we want to see out of office. One might support what happened in Egypt for very good reasons, but let’s be honest with ourselves : this ouster was not a democratic ouster.

  2. I agree with the your argument Sören. Nevertheless, one can and should ask the question to what extent Morsi’s rule was still legitimate. As far as I am informed, the constitutional powers Mursi granted himself made his rule close to autocracy. (also the case of Viktor Orban in Hungary comes to mind). Thus, though democratic, the regime was not a liberal democracy.

    The question then is can there be such a thing as Islamist democracy?

  3. The alternative press reports that an astonishing 33 million Egyptians are demonstrating right now – apparently unprecedented in history. With that level of opposition, few governments would have the nerve to maintain hold on power. But the Egyptian masses have failed to learn from the last regime change, in which the army played a key roll: It replaced Mubarak with an equally/even more reactionary regime. This opposition’s tragedy is that it has no leadership. As somebody said back in the Sixties: “The crisis of humanity is the crisis of revolutionary leadership.”

  4. I do agree that Morsi’s regime was not a liberal democracy. But the question is: are liberal democracies the only legitimate political regimes? If so, according to who and to what standards? To deny that a democratically elected anti-liberal Islamist government has legitimate authority, what are the argumentative strategies available to us, if any?

  5. it was a big plot supported from outside and using inside corrupted Police and Judges and big mess Media against Morsy out side we have historical enemies such as Israel and then our Arabic enemies and in top is Emirates they aware from us if we establish the new project in Suez Canal which will disastrous Dubi because of better location so that is there reason and used the old Police was not work excutly for the president but was to return there power back from first day Morsy is prisident you talk to any Police officer and he expected Morsy Down in few months that’s mean old regime was prepare for that since Morsy is president by create a crises of gas and electricity and have assistant from Israel when they supported Ethiopia to make they new Dam over the river nile and Morsy got blamed for miss management or he seemed as a soft action against that,

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