Egypt: Was It A ‘Coup’ Or Wasn’t It?

There is some debate about whether the Egyptian military’s removal of President Mohamed Morsi on July 3, 2013, constitutes a ‘coup’. The former president and his supporters clearly feel that this is the case, but the millions of Egyptians that took to the streets across the country calling for Morsi’s departure feel that this is a people’s revolution.

The phraseology debate matters, because it will affect the political discourse in Egypt for many years to come.

Our view is that the events of July 3 resembled a coup (albeit a soft one) in the sense that the military intervened to remove a democratically elected president from office, placed him under confinement, and announced the formation of a new technocratic government. The military also seized the state television station, and arrested senior members of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. These are all actions that usually accompany a coup. The key statements were made by General Abdel Fattah El-Sissi, who is defence minister and head of the armed forces. Although the general was flanked by opposition and religious leaders, the military made the final decision on Morsi’s fate, based on tremendous public pressure for the president to resign.

Comparisons Between 2011 And 2013

That being the case, why do some people call the February 2011 overthrow of Hosni Mubarak a revolution, and the July 2013 removal of Mohamed Morsi a coup? After all, it could be argued that what we saw in 2011 was much more of a ‘traditional’ military coup, since the armed forces assumed power and directly ran the country, and what we saw over the past week was a ‘real’ ‘revolution’, because it had much greater public support than the uprising against Mubarak, and because a civilian government is expected to administer the country in the transitional period. Perhaps future historians will rename these events accordingly.

The most probable reason for the discrepancy of the terms used to describe these two events is that because Mubarak was not freely elected (he won the 2005 election with 89% of the vote in what was widely seen as a flawed election) and had been in power for 30 years, his ouster was considered a ‘revolution’, whereas because Morsi was elected and had been in office for only a year, his removal was seen by many (especially his supporters) as a ‘coup’.

At the same time, it is certainly true that the Egyptian military was responding to massive popular pressures, and it is highly doubtful that the armed forces would have taken such dramatic action without popular support. In that sense, we understand why many Egyptians object to the term ‘coup’.

The Word ‘Coup’ Has Negative Implications, Even If Popular

Yet, regardless of whether one supported Morsi or not, he was an elected president. He won the run-off against Ahmad Shafiq in June 2012 with almost 52% of the votes. Admittedly, Morsi and his rival Shafiq were not generally considered to be the most promising candidates early in the election campaign, but Morsi’s election was still greeted with great jubilation at the time. The problem is that once in office, Morsi began acting in an increasingly authoritarian manner. Indeed, his assumption of sweeping executive and legislative powers in November 2012 was regarded by many as an anti-democratic coup.

Another problem in this debate is that the word ‘coup’ has negative implications, which is why Morsi’s opponents dislike its use. Nevertheless, if such an event had happened in another country, it would almost certainly have been termed a ‘coup’. (Incidentally, some commentators referred to the recent removal of former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard as a ‘coup’. The word ‘coup’ is used very widely in politics.)

What happened in Egypt on July 3 was not a traditional military coup, in the sense that the Egyptian armed forces do not appear to be positioning themselves to rule the country directly. However, the military is the most powerful single actor on the political stage. It is likely to play a key role during the transition period ahead of new elections, and quite probably, well beyond that date.

Traditional Coups Versus Modern Coups

It is worth adding that ‘direct’ military coups are rather rare nowadays. What we see instead are more subtle interventions by the military in times of political crisis. For example, in early 2007, as Bangladesh drifted towards major political turmoil ahead of planned elections, the military intervened and installed a technocratic caretaker government that postponed elections for almost two years. The Bangladeshi army did not formally seize power, but it remained the most powerful actor behind the scenes, and it moved to purge the country’s two main political parties (ultimately unsuccessfully). Some observers regarded it as a coup, but others did not.

As for how Egyptians and historians perceive the events of July 3 in future, much will depend on whether Egypt moves towards genuine and lasting democracy, or succumbs to renewed authoritarianism. If democracy becomes entrenched, then recent events will be seen more conclusively as a second revolution, or the second act of a single prolonged revolution. However, if Egypt returns to authoritarianism, then events of the past week may well be seen more widely as a coup.