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Call it What it is: A Military Coup in Egypt

It sounds a bit ugly to say, but it is still true:  the removal of Mubarak and the transfer of power to the high command has to be understood as a coup d’etat.  Indeed, I will not be surprised if we learn at some point in the future that Mubarak did not “decide” to “step down” and to then “transfer” power to the military but rather that he was told by the military that that was what he was going to do.  The lack of a statement from Mubarak, and his removal from Cairo seems to support this notion (as did the dour pronouncement of the Vice President about the resignation—a stark contrast to his more defiant statements after Mubarak’s speech last night).

The constitution has been set aside as there are no provisions for a military takeover of this type.  And I would expect to see other extraconstitutional moves in the days to come (like, perhaps, a dissolution of parliament and/or the cabinet).

It is worth noting that while the protestors prompted these events that the state is under the control of the military, not the protestors.   The real question now is whether this abrogation of the constitution will lead to its replacement with a more liberal system or whether the military will consolidate power in its own hands.

In the coming days it will be most fascinating to see whether the military reaches out to opposition figures or whether it remains quiet about its intentions.

I would note, by the way, that to date there is no evidence whatsoever that there is a threat of an radical Islamic takeover in Egypt.

By the way:  to call it a coup is not to assign a negative assessment to the events.  Indeed, this may have been the best way to move things forward.  Still, it seems clear that Mubarak was not going to resign on his own and to foster a transition on his own (which he could have done).  Still, we do not even know what the military high command’s dispositions are at the moment in regards to reform.  No doubt they figured out that something had to be done to restore order and to forestall a movement towards greater chaos.  Beyond that, we do not know what will happen next.

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About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor and Chair of Political Science at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. He is the author of Voting Amid Violence: Electoral Democracy in Colombia and is currently working on a comparative study of the US to 29 other democracies. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging at PoliBlog since 2003. Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. [...] me at OTB:  Call it What it is: A Military Coup in Egypt. addthis_url = 'http%3A%2F%2Fwww.poliblogger.com%2F%3Fp%3D19580'; addthis_title = [...]

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  2. Ben Wolf says:

    “I would note, by the way, that to date there is no evidence whatsoever that there is a threat of an radical Islamic takeover in Egypt.”

    This is because the Muslim Brotherhood is not the radical bogeyman we’ve been told. It encompasses many different interests, the majority secular in temperament. The one thing uniting it has been opposition to the regime, and you can expect that coalition to fracture unless the military establishes a replacement autocracy.

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  3. @Ben:

    I agree that “bogeyman” is the right word.

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  4. michael reynolds says:

    This is a case where a bit of corruption may turn out to be a useful thing. The military has major investments in the Egyptian economy. Including in tourism. So the money flow rides on stability, and stability rides on the protesters.

    The advantage of the Muslim Brotherhood was mosque-based communications and organization. That advantage is lessened, possibly outdone entirely, by Facebook. Will the protesters put up coherent, capable representatives? If so, and if the protesters stay strong, it will be very hard for the military to avoid democratization without cutting their own throats economically.

    I still say we’ll see elections in September, multi-party, free and fair and internationally monitored. I think it’s a Turkey.

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  5. @Michael,

    A Turkey-like outcome would be fabulous.

    The ability of the street to pressure the government is limited, I would note, and that will play into how much the military thinks that they have to acquiesce.

    I am just looking to be cautious about what the intentions of the military high command actually are.

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  6. Brummagem Joe says:

    It’s way too early to assume it’s a military coup. While they clearly occupy a pivotal position the army are probably trying to figure out a way to bring this to a peaceful conclusion without bringing the house down. Expectations of major reforms are now so great that any backpeddaling is going to be a very dangerous maneuver. I believe it’s a conscript army so you’d have the officer corps ordering Egyptian OR’s to fire on their relatives. Basically they’re not going to do it which is why the army have been standing well back ever since this started. Because once the shooting starts you’re never sure where it’s going to go. What happens next depends more on the demonstrators I’d say. Whether they melt away or stand firm for concrete changes and create some kind of negotiating body to do this. We’re heading into a very confused and untidy six months I’d say with the most likely ultimate outcome the removal of all the restricions on electoral and personal freedom. What comes after that is much more opaque.

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  7. @Joe:

    It is, by definition, a military coup. The military now has extraconstitutional powers to govern Egypt (i.e., the military high command haws no constitutional authority to do what they are doing). What else would you call it?

    Along with the assumption of presidential power, I noted in a separate post that the parliament and cabinet have been dissolved.

    The fact that it is a coup does not mean that the ultimate outcome of all of this will be military rule (and perhaps that is what you mean), but it is a coup.

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  8. michael reynolds says:

    The ability of the street to pressure the government is limited, I would note, and that will play into how much the military thinks that they have to acquiesce.

    Oh, I agree. But the ability of tech-savvy kids to determine whether or not Egypt has a tourism industry is vast. (Unfortunately, extremists also get a big vote on that.) The kids also have a say in military procurement, international aid, etc…

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  9. Brummagem Joe says:

    “It is, by definition, a military coup.”

    You might want to look up the definition of coup d’etat Steven before pontificating. It’s “A sudden, violent or illegal seizure of power, often by the military.” The current situation in Egypt hardly reaches this standard. Essentially they’ve been handed a caretaker role which they are going to have to exercise with great caution for the reasons I outlined.

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  10. Brummagem Joe says:

    “The ability of the street to pressure the government is limited,”

    Really? So how have they just managed to overturn a 30 year dictatorship?

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  11. @Joe:

    This fails in my general field of study, Joe. I am not just pontificating. I teach classes on this stuff, in fact.

    Not all coups are violent (hence the phrase “bloodless coups”).

    And the point of noting the “extraconstitutional” nature of the events is to point out that they are, strictly speaking, illegal. There is not legal or constitutional provision for the President to cede authority to the military nor is there any legal or constitutional right for the military to dissolve parliament or the cabinet.

    It may yet be a caretaker role, but that does not mean it isn’t a coup.

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  12. I think, perhaps, you are conflating the notion of a coup with permanent military rule. Coups do not necessary lead to a permanent military government.

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  13. legion says:

    Ummm, no. This is not a coup. Brummagem points out one good reason, and I have another:
    This isn’t something the military decided to do, it’s something the people of Egypt decided to do. The military took sides after the fact. The end result may be similar, since the military has effective power now, but they could just as easily sided with Mubarek & shut the whole thing down. This is not a coup.

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  14. @legion:

    The fact that the issues that precipitated the action was popular protest does not change the basic dynamics of what happened.

    For that matter, we really do not know whose “side” the military is on at this point.

    We do however, know that they are currently in charge.

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  15. @legion:

    One more thing: why would the motivation of the military be the issue in defining the action in question?

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  16. Brummagem Joe says:

    “I teach classes on this stuff, in fact.”

    Then you should know better than anyone the precise definition which I quoted verbatim from a dictionary. I’m not confused about anything. I didn’t say all coups were violent. Lloyd George mounted a coup against Asquith in 1916 which was not violent but parliamentary. The key word in that definition is “Seizure.” The military have not seized power they’ve essentially been handed it because there’s no other institution in the state that can guarantee a measure of stability going forward. However, it hardly amounts to a blank check or absolute power for reasons I’ve suggested. For this to work they are going to have arrive at an accomodation with other power centers in the state and at the moment that means mainly the street. I fully recognize the street could melt away but things have now reached such a point that there are almost certainly going to have to be major concessions in terms of personal and political freedom. If these don’t happen this has the potential to spark further revolutions as happened in Paris in 1789-1794 and St Peterrsburg in 1917.

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  17. Then you should know better than anyone the precise definition which I quoted verbatim from a dictionary.

    Yes, and as I tell my students constantly: dictionaries are not very good sources for obtaining the full meanings of complex terms and concepts. Dictionaries are fine for very basic definitions, and no more than that.

    Let me put it this way: would you like it if your doctor simply consulted the dictionary for the definition of “appendix” when you were suffering from appendicitis? Would you feel that he had a complete understanding by looking at the dictionary?

    The military has taken over and they have suspended the constitution. That’s a coup.

    Further, they have taken power, which is a synonym for “seized” (it just sounds less dramatic). Even if Mubarak offered it up (which may or may not be the case) they still took it, yes?

    If Mubarak simply resigned, the power of the presidency should have, according to the Egyptian constitution gone to the President of the lower house of parliament. Indeed, the entire process was extraconstitutional, if you look at the document in Articles 82-84.

    What would you call these events?

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  18. And I will point out one more time: this may have been the best thing that could have happened and it may lead to true liberalization. However, even if it does that won’t change how it happened.

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  19. c.red says:

    Brummagen Joe – I have a general respect for your position on things, but your arguing what the definition of “is” is on this one. I think Dr Taylor has you on the semantics – whether they sought it actively or accepted it passively, by publicly acknowledging they guarantee order and the government transition the military has “seized” power.

    ‘Will it be a temporary thing?’ and ‘what happens next?’ are far more important things to speculate about. (Because that really is all anyone over here is doing.)

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  20. PD Shaw says:

    Personally, I don’t believe it’s a coup if the military is enforcing pre-existing Constitutional limitations. In effect, that is the Turkey model. It’s what I believe roughly happened in Honduras in 2009, though I believe Prof. Taylor disagreed. At Prof. Taylor’s place, we examined the language of the Honduran Constitution to make the case for and against.

    A military taking charge to effect the uncodified “will of the people” is a coup. The military is going to make up the rules, not follow a pre-existing rule of law.

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  21. @PD:

    I am, in fact, working on a post on that subject. It is clearly not a constitutional maneuver.

    And yes, the Honduran case was a coup (or so I would argue–no point in starting that fight again!). This case is even more clear-cut, however.

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  22. Dave Schuler says:

    Yeah, this was basically my take a couple of days ago. As c.red points out, the question now is what next?

    I also want to mention that, if you can judge anything by polls taken in authoritarian countries, a fairly recent Pew poll found that Egyptians support traditional very illiberal practices (e.g. stoning for adultery, execution for converting from Islam) by wide majorities.

    There are quite a number of factions competing right now. The Old Guard (the Mubarak regime) that still has some influence in the military, probably a competing faction within the military that is pro-change (whatever that means in this context), some number of probably younger Egyptians who want to see something approximating a liberal democracy, internationalists like ElBaradei, the Ikhwan, and a very conservative populace who’d be happy with a lot more influence of Islam in government.

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  23. Dave Schuler says:

    BTW, I think that the only really sensible course of action for the U. S. right now is be vaguely pro-democratic, maintain a low profile, and trust in the military we’ve spent so much time, effort, and money on. Our influence on events in Egypt is probably pretty limited (although I think we’re sure to be blamed for anything bad that happens).

    In that light I don’t think that the Obama Administration has been doing too badly so far.

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  24. [...] It is quite clear that the relevant constitutional provisions have not been followed, which make the moves by the Egyptian military extraconstitutional (i.e., beyond the constitution—a nice way of saying “illegal”).  This is why I would call what has happened “a coup.” [...]

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  25. Brummagem Joe says:

    “Yes, and as I tell my students constantly: dictionaries are not very good sources for obtaining the full meanings of complex terms and concepts.”

    Steven: your casuistry is showing. Since when has Coup D’etat been a difficult concept to understand. The def I provided is both entirely apposite and understandable by most people with an IQ over 100. There has been no seizure of power, violent or non violent, power has been handed to the military and is entirely contingent on their presiding over a transition to something that looks like democracy. I don’t dispute they may try to put their fingers on the scales although this would be perilous for reasons I’ve suggested. It’s coming to something when I’m having to argue with professors of political science what the verb seize means and he’s claiming that dictionaries are limited or unreliable guides to the meaning of words.

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  26. Since when has Coup D’etat been a difficult concept to understand.

    I find that to be an ironic statement in a discussion over the meaning of the term :)

    There has been no seizure of power, violent or non violent

    The government of Egypt is now in the control of the high command of the Egyptian military and the constitution has been suspended (in practical terms, if not formally). How they got the power is largely irrelevant. Even if it was handed by Mubarak (which, again, I have my doubts about) that doesn’t make it legitimate.

    if Obama gave the power of the presidency to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and he took it and then went on to suspend the Constitution and dissolve Congress, that would be a coup, would it not?

    , power has been handed to the military and is entirely contingent on their presiding over a transition to something that looks like democracy.

    How do you know this to be the case? You may hope that that is the case (as do I). But even if the end result of all of this is democracy, that doesn’t make what happened today any less of a coup.

    he’s claiming that dictionaries are limited or unreliable guides to the meaning of words.

    Of course they are limited as they provide only brief definitions. They provide only basic descriptions. Do you think, for example, that the dictionary definition of “democracy” is all one needs to know on the subject? The stacks of books I have around me on the subject would state otherwise. Other examples that come immediately to mind: rights, terrorism, revolution, fascism, communism, liberalism, conservatism, etc.

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  27. legion says:

    Steven,
    The motivation of the military is entirely the point of differentiation between a coup and a popular revolution – the military did not decide Mubarek had to leave power, the people of Egypt did. The fact that both a coup and what happened in Egypt have a stage where the military is in control does not make the two events (or processes) the same.

    Why is the difference important? Because a military coup topples a government that was unpopular with the military and replaces it with something popular with the military; it results in a gov’t that is no more legitimate than the one it replaced (and often much less so). A popular revolution, in significant contrast, replaces someone the people couldn’t stand with someone they can. The fact that the military agrees (or even manages things during the interim) in no way makes this a coup.

    Now, if we come back to Egypt in a few months and the military isn’t allowing elections or turning power over to a properly elected leader, _then_ you can call it a coup. But since a military (or military-chosen) ruler has never been the expected end result of what’s still going on in Egypt, this is _not_ a coup. Period.

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  28. The motivation of the military is entirely the point of differentiation between a coup and a popular revolution

    No, it’s not.

    The differentiation is ultimately one of who loses power, how it is lost, and who has it. Intentions are not the issue.

    But since a military (or military-chosen) ruler has never been the expected end result of what’s still going on in Egypt, this is _not_ a coup. Period.

    But, right now the military is in charge of the Egyptian state and they got control of the state through extraconstitutional means. That is a coup. Period.

    Further, who’s to say what the expectations of the military are at the moment?

    Even if the military government eventually transitions to a democracy, that will not erase how the military obtained power in the first place.

    You are mixing hopes, intentions and other factors into your definition–factors which are irrelevant.

    Yes, the people wanted Mubarak out. However, the mechanism of his removal was coup. I am at a loss as to why this is considered a problematic statement.

    Please look at my last two posts in the realm of “coupness”.

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  29. Brummagem Joe says:

    Steven L. Taylor says:
    Friday, February 11, 2011 at 17:10
    Since when has Coup D’etat been a difficult concept to understand.

    “I find that to be an ironic statement in a discussion over the meaning of the term”

    The only irony arises from the fact that you a professor of political science are attempting to apply the expression Coup D’etat to a set of circumstances to which it doesn’t exactly apply and when challenged are seeking refuge in all kinds of irrelevancies. Legion is basically correct. If in six months no progress on constitutional reform has been made and the military imposes a military dictatorship then a coup could be said to have taken place. In the meantime that is simply not the situation and it’s perplexing that you don’t seem to comprehend this simple distinction. When you’re in a hole…stop digging.

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  30. Ben Wolf says:

    The term “bloodless coup” does, I believe, fit the current situation. However it also depends on what the military does next.

    Edward Luttwak categorized a military which permanently assumes control as a coup d’etat, while a military which deposes the civilian government and replaces it with another civilian government he referred to as a “pronunciamiento”, a kind of revolution more common in Latin America.

    As an aside, is there no way to type with fonts on an iPad?

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  31. PD Shaw says:

    legion, by what process have you determined the will of the people of Egypt? It may be true or may not be, but all coups are propagated by people claiming they are following the will of the people.

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  32. @Joe:

    Answer me this (although I suppose it might be an irrelevancy):

    Did the military legally take power? And if the answer is “yes” tell me by what legitimate means they did so.

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  33. John Burgess says:

    No, I have to side with those who say that motivation is an important aspect of ‘coup’.

    I’d go along, perhaps, with ‘the Army’s unwilling coup’, as that takes care of the mens rea, something I find absolutely required for the application of the word ‘coup’. Or maybe, ‘The Army backed into a coup’ or ‘The Army woke up to find it was in control’.

    That the Army is in control is incontrovertible. ‘Coup’ defines how it got there, not the end state. If it had been elected, we wouldn’t apply the word. That it came about through the failure of the constitution isn’t something the Army (as far as we can tell) did.

    Would we say ‘coup’ if the Army came to power simply by not acting in favor of the state?

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  34. Edward Luttwak categorized a military which permanently assumes control as a coup d’etat, while a military which deposes the civilian government and replaces it with another civilian government he referred to as a “pronunciamiento”, a kind of revolution more common in Latin America.

    I would consider a coup a method rather than a state of being.

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  35. That the Army is in control is incontrovertible. ‘Coup’ defines how it got there, not the end state

    This is exactly my point.

    (And I am not sure how motivation, per se, affects that fact–or even how, at this stage, we can know motivations same that clearly the status quo ante was considered untenable).

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  36. Ben Wolf says:

    “I would consider a coup a method rather than a state of being.”

    Well thats an interesting idea. If we accept “coup” solely as a method, what term would you use to define a resulting state of permanent military rule? Junta would seem appropriate.

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  37. Wayne says:

    I have to agree with Joe and Legion on this one. The end results are by no means all that matters. A “military” coup would mean the military were the ones that decided and acted to other throw the existing government. It was the people who decided and other threw the government and gave the power to the military.

    It like saying if the people revolted and overthrew the government then appointed the Secretary of State as being in charge of the transition that it would be Secretary of State Coup since Secretary of State is a member of the government. If the Secretary of State plan and execute the overthrow then that would be true. However that didn’t happen in this example.

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  38. Well thats an interesting idea. If we accept “coup” solely as a method, what term would you use to define a resulting state of permanent military rule? Junta would seem appropriate.

    It is the accepted definition/usage.

    “Junta” is a council and in this context usually refers to a set of military leaders.

    The exact form of the government post-coup can vary and does not need to be military for a coup to have taken place.

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  39. Ben says:

    “A coup d’état is the sudden, extrajudicial deposition of a government, to replace the deposed government with another body; either civil or military.”

    Under that definition, this is a coup d’etat. The question of what the government looks like at the end of transition is not part of the definition. Steven is correct here.

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  40. Ben Wolf says:

    “That the Army is in control is incontrovertible. ‘Coup’ defines how it got there, not the end state. If it had been elected, we wouldn’t apply the word. That it came about through the failure of the constitution isn’t something the Army (as far as we can tell) did.”

    Yes, but regardless of intent assumption of power by the military is by definition extralegal. If there were a constitutional provision allowing it I think you’d be right in saying we would not or should not call it a coup.

    It seems to me the extralegality of the act should be considered its defining characteristic. That is what makes it a coup.

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  41. Wayne says:

    Re “Did the military legally take power?”

    The people decided to dispose of a dictator and many of those he place in power. After which there is no longer a government therefore legality goes out the window. If a dictator is overthrown then his law saying no one can speak ill of him no longer exist. Someone calling him a name would not be breaking a law. The people agreed to allow the military to govern for the time being.

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  42. Wayne says:

    Ben you left out parts including “A coup consists of the infiltration of a small, but critical, segment of the state apparatus, which is then used to displace the government from its control of the remainder”

    A coup d’état happens from within the Government. A segment on the government overthrows those in power not simply accepts controls.

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  43. tom p says:

    Steven L T…. give up.

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  44. Ben Wolf says:

    “A coup d’état happens from within the Government. A segment on the government overthrows those in power not simply accepts controls.”

    This rests on evidence we don’t have access to yet. We don’t know why Mubarak gave a speech stating his intention to stay, yet less than a day later announced his resignation. Did the military deliver an ultimatum?

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  45. mattb says:

    Steven T wrote:
    Yes, and as I tell my students constantly: dictionaries are not very good sources for obtaining the full meanings of complex terms and concepts. Dictionaries are fine for very basic definitions, and no more than that.
    —-

    Yes! This is exactly the case and the difference between a colloquial definition (which is many ways is intended to shift a bit) and expert language which is intended for precise usage (otherwise it ceases to be of value).

    This is something that I typically talk about with my students pretty early on as well.

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  46. mattb says:

    The fact that this action took place after popular protest, as Steven points out has little to anything to do with the question of Coup.

    That arugment, based on available facts makes just about as much sense as this should be considered a coup because many western governments wanted him to go. The protests started a movement, but considering how long this took, it’s pretty apparent that change came only when the military picked a side an acted. Further arguing that the military is somehow separate from the state/government seems a strange move.

    In some respects this enitre thread reminds me of a quote attributed to Lincoln: How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg? Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.

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  47. PD Shaw says:

    John Burgess: If motivation is important, which I assume means it’s all for the greater good, how does one assess what is a proper coup and what is not.

    My disagreement with Prof. Taylor on assessing the crisis in Honduras had to do with interpreting the acts of the Honduran judiciary in condemning the President, and the army method of enforcing a provision of the Honduran Constitution. There was in my view substantial linkage between the acts of the military and a pre-existing rule of law. I see none here.

    This just appears to amount to a qualitative judgement, which I don’t believe Prof. Taylor is making. To risk godwining the thread, I think Prof. Taylor would still call it a military coup if the military had forced Hitler to resign and set aside the Constitution.

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  48. michael reynolds says:

    I hate semantic debates.

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  49. PD Shaw says:

    anti-semant

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  50. michael reynolds says:

    PD:

    Heh!

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  51. Joe said a coup is: “A sudden, violent or illegal seizure of power, often by the military.”

    Notice the wording: it uses an “or”. Now, what happened meets two of these criteria: it was sudden and it was illegal. What more do you want?

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  52. TG Chicago says:

    When I first read the headline, my reaction was to disagree. But after reading Taylor’s thoughts, I think I was just turned off by the negative connotation of “coup”. If you go by the definition of “coup” rather than attaching connotation, I agree with Taylor.

    The military forced Mubarak out. There was no legal or constitutional lever used; it was carried out by dint of pure military force. That’s a coup.

    Now one can argue that it’s not terribly useful to point this out, given that it’s about the most democratic coup you’re likely to find. It might serve more to obfuscate the issue rather than to clarify it (for instance, see this comment thread). But it is accurate.

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  53. Miguel Madeira says:

    «Joe said a coup is: “A sudden, violent or illegal seizure of power, often by the military.”

    Notice the wording: it uses an “or”. Now, what happened meets two of these criteria: it was sudden and it was illegal. What more do you want?»

    That the active agent of the “change of power” was a part of the state apparatus, like the military – and I think this is the big point of contention – the active agent of the “regime change” was the army (and in this case we have a military coup) or was the civic (largely non-violent) rebellion (and in this case I don’t think that the word “coup” is the better)?

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  54. TG Chicago says:

    Miguel: I think that the impetus was the rebellion, but the agent was the military.

    Consider: could the protestors have caused Mubarak to step down without the military? I think we got the answer Thursday night. Could the military cause Mubarak to step down? I think we got the answer Friday.

    I suppose one could make the argument that the military was only able to force Mubarak out due to the rebellion, but personally, I don’t believe that is true. I believe the rebellion influenced the military’s decision, but did not empower them.

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  55. Steve851 says:

    I’m just a common, relatively well-read guy. It’s obviously a military coup. That means absolutely nothing in relation to the ultimate outcome. We in American too readily associate coups with South America instead of with the Turkey experience.

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  56. [...] an even shorter way of describing this:  propaganda.  Like military coup, another term that has loaded connotations in popular discourse, it actually has a precise and [...]

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