Can coups be democratic? Sometimes!

We'll soon learn which way Egypt's will go -- but, yes, military coups can lead to democratic outcomes. Here's how

Topics: Egyptian Revolution, Egyptian Protests, Egyptian Military, egypt protests, Military Coup, Middle East, Democracy, Editor's Picks, Coup,

For many in the West, the apparent coup d’etat in Egypt today ignites mixed feelings. On one hand, Mohammed Morsi’s regime seemed to be heading towards dictatorship and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamist views are often antithetical to Western notions of democracy and human rights. But on the other, Morsi was fairly and democratically elected in Egypt’s first election, and the back-to-back military interventions could set a dangerous precedent. Which raises the question: Can coups ever lead to democratic outcomes?

The answer, surprisingly, is yes, according to two academic studies that have looked at the subject. A recent paper, via the Monkey Cage, from Nikolay Marinov and Hein Goemans of Yale and the University of Rochester, respectively, found something surprising that happened to coups after the end of the Cold War:

We use new data on coup d’états and elections to uncover a striking development: whereas the vast majority of successful coups before 1991 installed the leader durably in power, after that the picture reverses, with the majority of coups leading to competitive elections. We argue that after the Cold War international pressure influenced the consequences of coups. In the post-Cold War era those countries that are most dependent on Western aid have been the first to embrace competitive elections after the coup.

Egypt is one of the largest recipients of American military aid, which may be a positive sign for democracy, according to their theory. Whether or not that aid continues remains to be seen, however, as the U.S. government is technically prohibited from providing aid to a government that installed itself via a coup. But the definition of a “coup” is fungible and the law has never really stopped Washington from doing what it wants to, for instance continuing aid to Egypt after President Hosni Mubarak was ousted by the military two years ago.

“While the coup d’état has been and still is the single most important factor leading to the downfall of democratic government, our findings indicate that the new generation of coups has been far less nefarious for democracy than their historical predecessors,” Marinov and Goemans continued. So what might make a coup democratic?

Foreign Policy’s Joshua Keating looks at another study, this one from Lewis & Clark Law school professor Ozan Varol. As with Marinov and Goemans’ paper, Varol’s, published last year in the Harvard International Law Journal, argues that while most coups are undemocratic, “democratic coups d’etat” do exist. He points to three examples (including, ironically, the 2011 ouster of Mubarak), and lists seven criteria a military coup should follow to be considered democratic:

1) the coup is staged against an authoritarian or totalitarian regime; (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.

As Keating points out, two through five fit pretty well with Egypt today, “but the first and most important one is a tough sell.” The masses in Tahrir square certainly seemed to think that Morsi’s government was authoritarian, but Morsi and his allies obviously deny that.

The final two criteria, meanwhile, remain to be seen. The military’s rule after Mubarak gives some hope, but also plenty to be worried about. On the one hand, the military did not install a junta and ceded power to a democratically elected government. However, it just overthrew that democratically elected government. And during its rule between Mubarak and Morsi, the military is widely believed to have committed “forced disappearances, torture and killings across the country.”

What happens in the future, and whether the military follows Varol’s two criteria, will likely inform the retrospective view on whether Morsi was an autocrat, and ultimately whether history views this coup as democratic or not.

Alex Seitz-Wald

Alex Seitz-Wald is Salon's political reporter. Email him at, and follow him on Twitter @aseitzwald.

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