Why Egypt’s Coup Was So Effective

Why Egypt’s Coup Was So Effective

Until the start of this month, Egypt could count itself as a member of an exclusive club of nations in Africa that had not experienced a coup d’etat (successful or otherwise) in over 50 years. However, this article does not seek to explain the coup in Egypt per se, as it has already been reported at length.

By most accounts, the overthrow of Morsi’s government was a model example of how to successfully execute a (relatively) bloodless military coup. Studying the reasons as to how and why the Egyptian coup was pulled off can provide us with valuable information to predict both the frequency and chances of success for similar coups throughout the world. Broadly speaking, the Egyptian success can be traced back to four key factors.

1. An organised group with grievances against Egypt’s government

The majority of militaries are by definition hierarchical and organised institutions. In terms of grievances against the sitting government, the Egyptian army possessed both selfish and selfless reasons for moving against Morsi. On the one hand, the Egyptian army benefited greatly from the economic power they had amassed during the Mubarak era. An exact number is impossible to judge, but most reliable accounts claim that around 10 to 33 percent of the Egyptian economy is controlled either directly or indirectly by the armed forces.

The threat of a hostile government interfering with this economic power, or even allowing it to be eroded through continued economic misrule, could be enough for the military to act. On the other hand, the Egyptian armed forces are one of the very few institutions in Egypt that is genuinely respected by most of the population. A narrative of the Egyptian army assuming a role as the defenders of unity and stability was both popular to the general public and comfortable for the army itself.

2. More guns than the government

Saying that militaries tend to have access to more guns and ammunition than the government they serve may at first seem an obvious statement. However, most authoritarian regimes and developing democracies engage in processes of “coup-proofing.” As defined by James Quinlivan, such measures include “effectively exploiting family, ethnic, and religious loyalties; creation of an armed force parallel to the regular military; development of multiple internal security agencies with overlapping jurisdiction that constantly monitor one another; fostering of expertness in the regular military; and adequately financing such measures.”

Successful coup-proofing can decisively shift the balance of force away from the military into the hands of the ruling regime. While the Muslim Brotherhood had a long history of paramilitary activity during its days in opposition, it had neither the time nor the opportunity to present the possibility of organised armed resistance to any attempt by the armed forces to overthrow it. 

3. A plan implemented quickly and effectively

Any military coup has a set of objectives that must be immediately achieved if it is to be successful. These include securing control of major government buildings and media outlets, arresting or executing the major figures of the sitting government and disrupting the ability of any opposition to organize or resist effectively. At the very outset of the coup, the Egyptian army seized control of the main state television station, arrested or issued arrest warrants for Morsi and 300 prominent Muslim Brotherhood members and surrounded the meeting places of the Brotherhood with armoured vehicles and barbed wire to ward off any resistance.

The smoothness with which the interim government was formed in the wake of the military action also suggests that coordination between the army and the opposition to Morsi had been ongoing for some time. Atypically for military coups, the army openly criticised the sitting government for a considerable time before taking action. Usually disapproving opinions and plans for military action are kept to a small and secretive group to prevent premature leaking of information.

4. Opportunity to take action

When categorizing “opportunity” it is necessary to differentiate between long-term causes that created the conditions for the action and short-term causes that actually catalyzed the action. In the case of Egypt, the long-term causes included the continuing downturn of the Egyptian economy – exacerbated by a drastic collapse in tourism since the unrest that ousted Mubarak –  and Morsi’s increasingly autocratic method of rule, especially in regards to side-lining judicial oversight for legislative decisions and allowing Islamist scholars to dominate the process of drafting the new constitution. The latter was a particular point of contention for many liberal secularists voting for Morsi as the ‘lesser evil’ to Ahmed Shafiq, who had almost been barred from the running and was seen as tainted due to his role as Mubarak’s last Prime Minister, in the run-off election.

The final provocation, however, appears to have been Morsi’s call on 15th June for a religiously motivated intervention against the Syrian government at an Islamist rally, where prominent Sunni clerics also declared both al-Assad’s Shia regime and anti-Morsi Egyptians “infidels.” For an army that considers its central role to be guarding Egypt’s stability, such a proclamation crossed a red line at a time when the country was still convulsing in its own political and economic crisis.

The list of unsuccessful military coups that lacked one or several of these factors is long. The attempted Sudanese coup in 2008, where a group of Darfur rebels were foiled because they forgot the location of the Presidential Palace and allowed the army to block the bridges, while they asked for directions is a particularly farcical example of what occurs when the fundamentals are neglected. Regardless of the future, the Egyptian army can congratulate itself on a job well done on the 3rd July, 2013.

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