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What Can Research on Coups Tell Us About Egypt?

- July 9, 2013

This is a guest post by University of Kentucky political scientists Clayton Thyne.


Political scientists and other scholars have amassed a substantial body of work about coups.  Below I discuss what this work has found and how it is linked to the events in Egypt.  The important lesson that emerges is that the coup in Egypt likely to be bad for Egypt’s fledgling democracy, but a strong response by international actors could help keep Egypt on a democratic trajectory in the long run.

What happened in Egypt was certainly a coup.  Jonathan Powell best explains why the military take-over was definitely a coup by summarizing definitions used by fifteen previous scholars who have previously defined “coups,” and Jay Ulfelder comes to a similar conclusion.  Both Jon and Jay are right—the coup was overt, perpetrated by people from the state apparatus, and it was illegal.  Of this we should have little debate.

Furthermore, systematic data on coups show that what happened in Egypt is relatively uncommon.  Below I plot total and successful coups over time using the data that Powell and I compiled.  The number of coups has fallen significantly over time, although they are certainly not non-existent.  There have been 40 coup attempts since 2000 (17 successful) and 5 coup attempts in 2012 (3 successful).



The Egyptian coup might seem unusual because it was preceded by a popular protest, but in fact these protests regularly precede coups, as Jeremy Pressman rightly noted.  Work by me and Aaron Belkin and Evan Schofer shows that popular protests are one of the most consistent predictors of coups.

What does the coup mean for the future of democracy in Egypt?  Powell and I show that coups can increase the likelihood of democratization when they overthrow authoritarian regimes, something that seems to be especially true in the post-Cold War era, when elections come sooner after coups according to the findings of Nikolay Marinov and Hein Goemans.  But when there is a coup against a democratically elected government, like Morsi’s in Egypt, the scholarly literature is less optimistic: coups that take place against democracies are bad for democracy.

So, what happens now?  Most of what I have seen focuses on the internal political dynamics in Egypt (see, for example, analyses from Doug Mataconis).  Internal dynamics will undoubtedly be important, but we shouldn’t lose focus on the international community.  Although there isn’t a large literature on how the response of the international community matters — though see this forthcoming paper from Megan Shannon and co-authors  — support from international actors appear to increase the tenure of leaders who come to power via coups.  Using data from Archigos, Powell and myself, and Shannon et al., I examined 205 leaders who came to power from a coup between 1951 and 2004.  When these leaders drew positive support from other states and/or from international organizations (IOs) in the six months following the coup, they stayed in power longer than when they drew mainly negative support.  Leaders who came to power via a coup that was supported by the international community lasted over 2 years longer than those who came to power and were condemned by the international community.  Leaders who enjoyed state support after seizing power lasted over 3 years longer on average than those who faced a hostile response.



Thus, it may matter a great deal how the international community responds to events in Egypt.  The African Union has already followed its rules by suspending Egypt, but there haven’t seen a similarly decisive response from many others.  As should be expected from Daniel Morey and co-authors’ study of international responses to the Arab Spring uprisings, the Obama administration is all over the place (or see Joel Pollak’s rather scathing critique).  Without strong international pressure in support of democracy, the military in Egypt essentially has a blank check to do whatever they want with the state.  We’re quickly seeing this play out with the crackdown of supporters of the previous government and the waning hope of seeing someone like ElBaradei gain a strong position of power.  A spade is not a shovel, and condemning a coup is not the same stating that “the future path of Egypt can only be determined by the Egyptian people.”  Coups are bad for democracy, international responses to coups matter, and Egypt’s path towards (or away from) democracy will likely hinge upon strong international pressure to return to elections and respect the electoral outcome as soon as possible.