July 3, 2013

Egypt’s apparent coup would be first of 2013, as takeovers become less common worldwide

FT_13.07.03_Coup-de-tateWednesday’s apparent coup in Egypt, which seems to have ousted President Mohamed Morsi, would be the first of 2013. It is also a reminder that coups are less common methods of regime change than they used to be.

FT_13.07.03_Coup-de-tateChart (1)According to the Vienna, Va.-based Center for Systemic Peace, which maintains extensive databases on various forms of armed conflict and political violence, since the end of World War II there have been 223 successful coups d’etat (counting Wednesday’s event) in countries with populations greater than 500,000. Most occurred during the height of the Cold War, from the 1960s through the 1980s. (The center defines a coup as “a forceful seizure of executive authority and office by a dissident/opposition faction within the country’s ruling or political elites that results in a substantial change in the executive leadership and the policies of the prior regime, although not necessarily in the nature of regime authority or mode of governance.” It distinguishes coups from revolutions, civil wars and ousters by foreign armies.)

Seventy-six countries (including a few that no longer exist) have experienced at least one coup in the postwar period, according to the center’s database. Thailand, with nine coups between 1947 and 2006, has had the most, followed by Bolivia and Syria with eight each. Wednesday’s takeover, if it holds, would be Egypt’s second coup, following the 1952 overthrow of King Farouk. Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected president, had been in office just over a year, following the popular uprising that led to the ouster of longtime leader Hosni Mubarak.

Jay Ulfelder, an independent political scientist who’s interested in democratization, civil unrest and state collapse, writes on his blog that Wednesday’s event still counts as a coup, regardless of how much public support it might have: “That the army’s apparent ouster of President Morsi may be popular doesn’t make it legal or erase the fact that he only ‘agreed’ to go when coerced. That military leaders may not claim executive authority for themselves does not obviate the fact that they are pushing out a sitting president at gunpoint.”

But Ulfelder also notes a recent paper that suggests latter-day coups may not be as bad for democracy in the longer term than those that took place during the Cold War. The researchers, Nikolay Marinov of Yale and Hein Goemans at the University of Rochester, conducted an analysis that found most post-Cold War coups have been followed by elections within five years, while only about a quarter of coups that took place during the Cold War did so.

This post has been updated to reflect that the situation in Egypt remains fluid and there are conflicting characterizations about the change in the country’s government.

Topics: Middle East and North Africa, Protests and Uprisings

  1. Photo of Drew DeSilver

    is a Senior Writer at the Pew Research Center.

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