Notwithstanding Egypt, Coups Have Become Rare

Military coups used to be far more common than they are today.

Mideast Egypt

Yesterday’s coup in Egypt, and no matter what the United States and the Egyptian military may want to tell you it was indeed a coup. may end up being the most newsworthy event of 2013, most certainly in the Middle East if not the entire world. One thing it does point out, though, is that military coups themselves have become far less common than they used to be:

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 (including Wednesday’s coup) 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 coup was Egypt’s second, 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.

This chart shows the post-war trend:

Coup Chart

And, this map shows where coups have been most common in the post-war era. Not surprisingly, it’s mostly been in the third-world:

Coup Map

The reasons behind this decline in military grabs for power are likely as numerous and unique as the nations in which these events used to be common, but I would suggest that there are a few factors worth considering.

First of all, the chart above shows a dramatic fall off in coups after the end of the Cold War. This suggests that, at least in part, there was at least some outside influence in what was going on in these nations. This *isn’t to suggest that either the United States or the Soviet Union engineered every coup that took place during the Cold War, although we do know that there was clear involvement of both in several of the more notable such coups during that period. For the most part, though, I’d suggest that the outside influence of Cold War politics had a strong influence on the internal politics of many third-world nations, especially to the extent it meant access to huge sources of aid from one side or the other.  In addition to all the normal trappings of power, that’s a powerful incentive. Another factor that likely contributed to the drop off is the end of the delusion of Communism after the fall of the Soviet Union that created a unifying power for many of the forces that attempted, often successfully, to overthrow governments, or were used by military forces as a convenient fig leaf to mask their grab for power. With that illusion busted, the political justifications for naked power grabs became far harder to come by. Finally, without the Cold War game playing itself by proxy in the Third World, the incentive for one side or another to grab power is far less than it used to be and the ability of military forces to actually carry them out has also been reduced.

Second, since the 1970s the Third World has seen the rise of several relatively successful democracies in nations that used to be subject to, on the verge of coup’s on a regular basis. Nations like Argentina and Zambia come to mind, for example. Additionally, the emergence of a stable democratic regime out of the bitter apartheid regime in South Africa has arguably shown nations in Africa, where coups were an all-too-common occurrence, that there is another path. After the apartheid regime fell there, things could have easily turned bloody as blacks sought revenge, but the leadership of Nelson Mandela ensured that this wouldn’t happen, and that arguably served as an example to other African nations.

Finally, the rise of the mass media and the spread of social media has arguably made it harder for a military elite to impose its will on a nation. That may sound contradictory given yesterday’s events in Egypt and the fact that the people protesting against former President Morsi clearly welcomed the military’s intervention, but I think there’s an important distinction to be drawn from that example. Whether it is proven to be correct or not, the protesters of Egypt clearly see the military as being on their side in what was a conflict against a leader who had become authoritarian and unresponsive. That they rejected a Constitution that had been approved by upwards of 60% of the people and a President and Parliament elected by a clear majority is, I’ll admit, ironic, but it is the truth. For their own sake, I hope they made the right choice. What the rise of social media in other nations means, though, is that it’s arguably more difficult for shadowy military figures to depose leaders and take control of the nation without facing the “people power” of popular protest.

Those are just three thoughts off the top of my head for the reasons behind the drop in military coups over the past 20 years or so. I’d be interested in hearing others.

FILED UNDER: Africa, Middle East, World Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Tsar Jan Bithead Nicholas says:

    All of this come from the librul media loopy acadame cabal. I don’t believe any of those analysis.