The democratic coup d’état: a fallacy

In light of the recent killings of over 50 Muslim Brotherhood supporters (NYT) by the Egyptian military in Cairo after having deposed their first democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi, Ozan O. Varol’s theory in the Harvard International Law Journal (PDF file) published last summer on “democratic coups d’état” understandably draws scepticism, or at least cautious optimism in the case of Foreign Policy (in Can a Coup Ever Be Democratic?). While the democratic coup concept seems to be inherently flawed, the links Professor Varol draws between a coup’s context and the likelihood of democratisation – including his constitutional entrenchment theory – are no doubt novel and enlightening.

The article succeeds in debunking the conventional notion that all coups inherently lead away from democracy instead of towards it by examining three case studies, and rightly acknowledges that coups cannot be easily categorised into standardised models. That an illegal and violent coup may eventually create political institutions more democratic or pluralistic than the prevailing alternative should not be disputed, however paradoxical this may seem. Labelling a coup itself as democratic, though, is what I take issue with.

The term “democratic coup” is an unfortunate misnomer for a phenomenon that does indeed lacks study as acknowledged by the author. By this, he is referring to coups d’état – or “a quick and decisive extra-legal seizure of governmental power by a relatively small but highly organized group of … military leaders” – that create a “path to democratization” by way of elections or constitutional rule where none is available, commonly in response to “popular support” against an authoritarian or totalitarian regime.

The act of carrying out a coup however is inherently destabilising even if democracy, in any broad definition, does not exist in the country experiencing a coup, or if the regime being deposed is highly undemocratic; it undermines the rule of law and by definition monopolises on power without majority consent, all of which are directly opposed to democratic rule. The article fails to distinguish between the aftermath of a coup, which may sometimes contain democratic elements, and the coup itself, which cannot.

This is more than a mere technicality. It is a distinction that I think, once recognised, undermines the entire idea of a democratic coup, an oversimplification of what occurs in a military takeover. Varol conveniently identifies seven attributes that a “democratic coup typically features” (300):

(1) the coup is staged against an authoritarian or totalitarian re- gime; (2) the military responds to persistent popular opposition against that regime; (3) the authoritarian or totalitarian regime refuses to step down in response to the popular uprising; (4) the coup is staged by a military that is highly respected within the nation, ordinarily because of mandatory conscription; (5) the military stages the coup to overthrow the authoritarian or totalitarian regime; (6) the military facilitates free and fair elections within a short span of time; and (7) the coup ends with the transfer of power to democratically elected leaders.

Notably, only criteria six and seven relate to the aftermath of a democratic coup, while the remaining relate to the circumstances or framework under which the coup is carried out, including whether or not the military is “highly respected” or is responding to “popular opposition against [a] regime”.

As such, only items one through five are directly related to the characteristics of a coup; the latter two are related to following actions taken by the new ruling junta, not their act of ousting their predecessors. Under any acceptable definition of democracy, fulfilling the first five criteria would not constitute a coup as democratic. As the last two are unrelated to the act of a coup, they would not either. The article falls short on this account.

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