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Opinion

Military soft 'coup' in Egypt has precedent

There is a debate whether Sunday's decree by Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces was actually a military coup. Precedent in Turkey and Algeria shows that whether generals put tanks on the street or issue a memo, officers’ interests are safeguarded, but society as whole pays.

By Steven A. Cook / June 20, 2012

An Egyptian woman chats slogans against the ruling Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) outside the Egyptian parliament in Cairo June 19. The SCAF issued a decree limiting the powers of the presidency and the high court dissolved the parliament. Writes contributor Steven A. Cook: 'This 'something-not-quite-coup' is not as rare as one might suspect.'

Manu Brabo/AP

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Is Egypt experiencing a military coup?

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The days of coups d’état around the world are over, or so many observers have told us in recent years. Militaries have been domesticated, the people will not tolerate martial law, national stock markets would swoon if officers toppled civilians, and the opprobrium of the international community would be intense.

All these factors were to have made the sight of tanks and troops in the streets the stuff of grainy old photos of a bygone era. Indeed, coups have been relatively rare with perhaps the exception of places in Africa and tiny islands in the South Pacific.

Yet the Egyptian military’s recent constitutional decree indicates that when the interests of the officers dictate, they are more than capable of using a combination of coercion, prestige, and their own sense of national duty to undermine legitimate governments and political processes.

There is a debate whether a June 17 decree, issued by Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (or SCAF), was actually a coup. After all, they did not deploy troops to sensitive locations. They did not take over the television station (it was already in their hands). They did not arrest politicians and they did not issue a numbered communiqué declaring a new order – all hallmarks of coups from all over the world.

Moreover, Egypt’s officers acted after the Supreme Constitutional Court issued a ruling declaring one-third of the seats in the People’s Assembly void and the head of that court asserted that without those seats the parliament could not function.

The generals then held a press conference stating that they would honor their commitment to hand power to a civilian president on July 1. Still, with the police blocking access to the parliament building and the substance of the communiqué gutting the powers of the presidency as well as vesting the ruling officers with new prerogatives, it sure seems like a coup.

This “something-not-quite-coup” is not as rare as one might suspect. The model, whether intended or otherwise, for the SCAF’s actions was what their Turkish counterparts refer to in Orwellian language as the “28th of February Process.” It was on that date in 1997, that the Turkish General Staff issued a series of “recommendations” – really orders – that then Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, an Islamist, was to carry out to safeguard Turkey’s secular political order.

Over the following four months the officers brought pressure to bear on Mr. Erbakan through almost every imaginable channel – the media, civil society, labor unions, academia – except force until the prime minister’s coalition cracked. In the aftermath, Erbakan’s party was banned and Turkey entered a period of political instability and economic uncertainty.

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