Is Egypt experiencing a military coup?
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.
The diminution of civilian leaders and weakening of Turkey’s democratic practices were clearly subordinate to the overarching interests of the officers in protecting the political system that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded 74 years earlier, a system that above all benefited Turkey’s officer corps.
If the “blank” or “post-modern” coup, as Turks have come to know the 1997 events, was an inspiration of sorts for the SCAF, the actual prototype was Turkey’s 1971 “coup by memorandum.” That’s when the generals told the government to change articles of the constitution that the commanders deemed too liberal – or else. Upon receiving and considering the military’s missive, Turkish leader Suleyman Demirel cleared out of his office.
Algeria, too, has had experience with coups that do not actually look like what observers have often associated with military intervention. In January 1992, a conclave of 60 officers gathered in an emergency meeting and resolved to cancel the second round of legislative elections, dissolve the National Assembly, and push President Chadli Bendjedid from office.
The reason? The Islamic Salvation Front was poised to dominate parliament and the president was signaling his willingness to cohabit with an Islamist-controlled legislature. The officers used suspect legal reasoning and conjured powers that they did not have – just as the SCAF has done in disbanding Egypt’s parliament – to achieve their ends.
The actions of the Algerian officers plunged the country into a decade of civil war that estimates suggest killed more than 100,000 people, yet the political system that they intervened to protect survived.
It is unlikely that Egypt will go the way of Algeria in the 1990s, but the patterns of politics in those countries as well as Turkey in another era are strikingly similar. That is because the officers are the primary beneficiaries and thus defenders of their respective political systems.
Consequently, whether they put tanks on the streets, submit a memorandum, or issue a constitutional decree, the result has often been the same. The officers’ various interests – personal and political – are safeguarded, but the society as whole pays for it.
Steven A. Cook is the Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of “The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square” (Oxford University Press).