Small Wars Journal

Egypt: When a Coup is Not a Coup

Mon, 08/05/2013 - 8:08pm

Egypt: When a Coup is Not a Coup

By Mark Ulrich

The big debate now, regarding Egypt, is whether the events of July 2013 should be classified as a coup d’état. The question becomes all the more divisive since U.S. foreign aid is rooted in the legality of a “no coup” policy. Much of the discussion, however, does not appear to be based on objective analysis, but is instead politically motivated with regard to foreign aid. Those opposing aid say it’s a coup; those in favor say it’s not. Common in the argument is justifying a coup via one-line dictionary definitions, like in Oxford “a sudden, violent, and illegal seizure of power from a government.” This, however, does not provide much analytical assessment of the purpose behind these events, which is necessary for this debate to have merit. What is missing is the larger narrative that describes coups in all their variations. For example, coups can be conducted by a small group of co-conspirators, or by a cadre backed by an entire insurgent movement. Even so, what happened in Egypt in July 2013 was not a coup but was in fact a counter-coup. The Muslim Brotherhood, an insurgent movement, conducted the actual coup d'état a year earlier when it manipulated the democratic process in order to establish a Sharia based Islamic State. The Egyptian military and much of the populace recognized and then reversed this coup. America, stable in its democracy is poised to support Egypt as the troubled nation navigates its way through the tortuous political obstacles common in forming this type of government.

Analysis of the insurgency’s strategy and nature seems to be largely missing, at least in open debate, among pundits voicing opinions. The usual methods of analyzing insurgencies seem to focus merely on tactics and terrorism, completely dismissing the movement's nature and strategy. This absence of analytical rigor can lead to politically or economically driven courses of action or inaction, instead of a more prudent and lucid solution derived though understanding this form of irregular warfare. Mohamed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, was elected through a valid democratic process and therefore is the legitimate President of Egypt. This is true, but what many of those publicly debating this point may not realize is that the Muslim Brotherhood is an insurgent organization. Some may not accept this classification since, in more recent years, the Brotherhood has openly tried and succeeded in entering the political process and has denounced violence, even though they continue to export Islamist revolutions and subversive actions throughout the region. These actions are more predictable when assessment of an insurgency includes analysis their strategy. Muslim Brotherhood utilizes the ‘subversive strategy’ which, as defined in Joint Publication 3-24 “either attempts to transform an illegal political entity into a legitimate political party or to use an existing legitimate political party. This party will attempt to subvert the government from within.” The nature of this insurgency, through the use the subversive strategy, is to transform the secular Egyptian government to that of an Islamic theocracy. A major difference between a subversive strategy and a violent coup or abrupt overthrow, is that these changes are subtle and gradual, appearing to follow the accepted and legitimate political process.

The subversive strategy is used when a group is unsuccessful in sneaking or breaking in the back door of a government and instead tricks their way through the front door. This strategy centers on the insurgent’s political wing becoming a legitimate party which can enter the political process. Examples include Sinn Fein of the IRA, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and most recently the Taliban in Qatar. This party can then carry out seemingly normal political activities, while deriving support from illegal or illegitimate actions by other wings of the insurgency.  These activities, designed to appear normal and favorable, may include reintegration of insurgent members back into society, which are instead deliberate and calculated steps towards eventual destruction of the government from within. Some urged and continue to argue that the Muslim Brotherhood be included in the process as opposed to being opponents. Inclusion is only useful if repatriation or collaboration of the organization’s members is the true intent. In the analysis of a movement, using specific methodologies such as the dynamics of insurgency, referenced in U.S. Army Field Manual 3-24 Counterinsurgency, helps decipher the type of insurgency, its strategy, and the condition of the movement. The point is that insurgents do not commit to reconciliation from a functioning subversive strategy and from a position of strength like the Muslim Brotherhood was at the time of the anti-Mubarak riots and follow on elections. Instead reintegration-type actions are done when an insurgent movement is weak and fracturing. No one says, “We’re winning!...Let’s quit.”

If an insurgency successfully enters the government, and continues to follow the subversive model, many follow-on events are generally predictable. Looking at the insurgent’s ideology, goals, and capabilities provides a means to deduce how they plan on accomplishing their goals. An insurgent who wanted to change Egypt into an Islamic State under Sharia law would need to change the constitution, suspend rights, and manipulate the judicial, military, and political systems. Judges and legislators who do not cooperate would have to be intimidated or fired. The use of referendums to help justify changing the constitution may be used if many people are generally dissatisfied and plied with things like heavy propaganda, bribes, and intimidation. Opponents and the media need to be silenced and more insurgents or supporters need to be brought into the government. If an insurgent actually becomes head of state, even if done completely within the bounds of the law, the strategy moves into its final stages by deliberately dismantling that form of government from the top.

Hugo Chavez, the recently deceased presidential dictator of Venezuela, draws an interesting parallel to the current issues in Egypt. President Chavez, a military officer and founder of the secretive socialist Movimiento Bolivariano Revolucionario 200 (MBR-200), had a goal to overthrow, through coup, the Carlos Andres Perez presidency in 1992. Although these attempts failed and Chavez was arrested, he became famous, was later pardoned, and then successfully ran for public office through legitimate means. As president he changed the constitution, suspended free press, and other actions common to this strategy to affect the same types of changes that he would have enacted if he had been victorious in the original overthrow.

In the case of Egypt, Morsi began ordering the release of hundreds of prisoners and pardoned dozens of convicted hardliner Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, which is considered to be a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union. Morsi began removing his opponents from their posts like Egypt’s intelligence chief, several ministers, and a governor and replacing them with allies from his organization and the aforementioned Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya. It may appear to be normal for a political leader to bring in members of their own party to the government, however the Brotherhood is an insurgency and the goal is not to form an effective transitional democratic government, but instead to destroy it in favor of an exclusive Sharia law based regime. Morsi continued extralegal moves, in the spirit and doctrine of the subversive strategy, by replacing the military’s top leadership, attempting to remove a leading prosecutor, proclaiming he was taking full executive and legislative power, and stating he was now beyond the reach of Egypt’s judicial checks-and-balances.

Eventually, Morsi made several overt missteps by moving too fast in his dismantling of Egypt’s system of government. By doing so, he and the Muslim Brotherhood became exposed as conspirators against democracy. This started with many opposition representatives resigning in protest and announcing that Morsi’s Islamists, in large numbers, had subverted the constitutional drafting committee and were openly turning the nation away from being a republic. Additionally, Morsi’s hasty actions to intimidate the press backfired and he was forced to openly renounce his own administration’s arbitrary arrests of reporters declaring his support for public opposition, something generally incongruous with extremist Islamic regimes. He pushed to limit the freedom to demonstrate and thwart free expression by way of “secret police,” a subversive tactic reminiscent of the strategy’s namesake. An example of this occurred during demonstrations in December, 2012 when witnesses recount the arrests, detention, and beatings of protesters by members of the Muslim Brotherhood. This paramilitary element, in insurgent speak, is referred to as the movement’s ‘underground’ and the activity is referred to as ‘populace and resource control operations.’ Underground members are not commonly used this overtly as most of their activities are covert or clandestine by nature. Since changing the constitution is generally critical in the subversive strategy, it is not unpredictable for a movement to assume risk and use their underground to openly block opposition.

In the cases of Hugo Chavez and Mohamed Morsi, these insurgent leaders manipulated their way into the legitimate political process to gain entry, utilizing the subversive insurgent strategy, in order to change the constitutions, consolidate extraordinary powers, and remove opposition members all in an effort to overthrow the legitimate democratic system of government. What the Egyptian Armed Forces did was counter the Muslim Brotherhood’s coup d'état. Mohamed Morsi violated his oath while the military followed their: "I swear to be a loyal Soldier to the Arab Republic of Egypt, preserving and defending it, on land, sea and air, preserving the republic system. I will never leave my gun till death. I swear and my God is a witness." Coup d'état are not the job of the military, “preserving the republic system” is their job, and they followed their oath.

As we debate whether or not Egypt’s military conducted a coup against a legitimate democratic president in the summer of 2013, we should ask ourselves what rights we as Americans would accept losing before those stripping that which we consider inalienable are recognized as usurpers and would impel the people and the military to return the government to its foundation? We just celebrated our 237th year of independence, and enjoy a very stable government with a steadfast system of checks-and-balances, but have we forgotten our own uncertain beginnings? At times, we take for granted the fact that, without George Washington removing a king, refusing to be a king, and later guiding our new nation as the president, we might not have succeeded in this ‘great experiment.’ The problem is men like George Washington are, like his predecessor and sole peer Cincinnatus, rare.

There may be some still willing to hang their entire argument on the fact that Morsi was duly elected and therefore there is no legal remedy until the next election. Does this mean that the election is the only characteristic of a democracy, regardless of Morsi’s conduct to oppress political opposition, manipulate the constitution, and violate individual rights? The Egyptian military, backed by the people, preserved their nation, countered the Muslim Brotherhood's insurgent coup, and reclaimed their country. By doing so, the Egyptian people have made a clear statement that they reject authoritarian rule and favor a democracy, at least for now. Opportunities to assist nascent democracies are infrequent enough, especially in that region. These events should signal the United States to embrace and support the struggling democratic nation, as opposed to allowing the insurgents to regroup and reorganize amid the confusion and unrest, while we debate our short-term agendas in the name of political righteousness.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not constitute an endorsement by or opinion of the Department of Defense.



Wed, 08/07/2013 - 7:07pm

In reply to by TheCurmudgeon

Interestingly, Wikipedia has added a sentence to its coup definition based on recent events - Lately a view that all coups are a danger to democracy and stability has been challenged by the indication of the phenomenon of a "democratic coup d'état", which "respond to a popular uprising against an authoritarian or totalitarian regime and topple that regime for the limited purpose of holding the free and fair elections of civilian leaders.

Seems to echo Sec of State Kerry's comments from 1 August - "In effect, they were restoring democracy. The military did not take over, to the best of our judgment so far——to run the country. There’s a civilian government.”


Wed, 08/07/2013 - 11:41am

In reply to by pmansoor

Before Madhu tries to corral me in again I want to say that I agree with the article. I also feel that caution must be taken when making historical comparisons. France went through many gyrations from the revolution in 1789 until the third republic in the 1870’s. Since 1932 Thailand has had about twenty coups and you can expect more into the foreseeable future. Which were “good” and which were “bad” is often a matter of interpretation. These are countries going through social upheavals that some have placed under the general rubric of “modernization” (like coup, another term with a value bias attached to it). Be careful in assuming that all democracies are “good” and all authoritarian systems are “bad”. What any country needs at the time is much more complex than that simple dichotomy.


Wed, 08/07/2013 - 10:18am

An excellent, well-written article. Good to see that the Irregular Warfare Center has succeeded in adding to Army doctrine the subversive strategy as a recognized part of the insurgent playbook. Hitler and the Nazi Party used the same strategy to gain power in the early 1930s; more recently, Muqtada al-Sadr and the Jaish al-Mahdi attempted the same in Iraq. Those who say Morsi could do whatever he liked because he was elected do not understand history. One person, one vote, one time is a recipe for totalitarianism.


Tue, 08/06/2013 - 8:13pm

Does the no-coup policy include a statutory definition? If not, it would seem to still ultimately come down to the discretion and good judgement of implementing officials. While a system easily rendered dysfunctional by poor choices of people is probably far too fragile, sometimes the decisions of who to put where are just that bad.


Tue, 08/06/2013 - 7:06pm

It is the duty of the people to rise up against oppression!

Ori Pomerantz

Tue, 08/06/2013 - 6:07pm

If Morsi had stayed in power it would have been "One man, one vote, once". That is not a democracy.

What happened in Egypt, with the support of about 15 million people who went to the streets to protest, was essentially a pre-constitutional version of impeachment. Morsi proved he'll overthrow the republic, so they overthrew him instead.

Move Forward

Wed, 08/07/2013 - 10:28pm

In reply to by Mark Pyruz

<blockquote>One person, one vote, one time is a recipe for totalitarianism.</blockquote>

Best quote of the year. When did the citizens of Iran get to vote for the Ayatollah Khamenei and his theocracy?

Found this quote somewhere as I tried to recall how Morsi was the epitome of a democratic leader:

"On November 22, 2012, Morsi unilaterally decreed greater powers for himself, giving his decisions immunity from judicial review and barring the courts from dissolving the Constituent Assembly and the upper house of Parliament."

Mark Pyruz

Tue, 08/06/2013 - 1:53am

Sort of begs the question:

Had Burt Lancaster's character in "Seven Days in May" been successful, would that have been considered a coup? Or not?