Good Coup, Bad Coup–Still a Coup

The debate around the Egypt coup–including whether there was a coup at all–can be illuminated with a thought experiment: what if the latest coup in Africa had not occurred in Egypt, but in Zimbabwe?

Zimbabwe has been run as a dictatorship for the past thirteen years and more, though nominally it has had the forms and institutions of a democracy. Few would have worried much if a group of military officers, alarmed at the continued brutality and corruption of President Robert Mugabe, had arrested him and seized power, promising elections. There would have been protest from African states, but not much else.

A coup against a democratic government is generally illegitimate–except when that government has already destroyed its own legitimacy by usurping power. That is what happened in Zimbabwe–and that is what was clearly under way in Egypt. The question is whether a coup was the only option remaining in Egypt–and also whether the Egyptian military intends on creating a real transition to democracy, or holding power for itself.

There is also a fundamental difference between Egypt and Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwean people expressed a clear democratic preference for an alternative, starting with a defeated constitutional referendum in 2000 and continuing through stolen elections in the years thereafter, which were almost certainly won by the opposition. The Egyptian people, however, voted overwhelmingly for Islamist parties (including but not limited to the Muslim Brotherhood) and ratified the constitution that the Brotherhood had championed.

So while the legitimacy of the Muslim Brotherhood government was not guaranteed, as President Barack Obama mistakenly asserted, by the fact that it was elected, it is not entirely clear that its removal was legitimate, either. Nor is it clear that the Egyptian opposition had made full use of other constitutional or parliamentary means available before endorsing the military’s takeover (a coup by any real definition).

Therefore the argument that the Egyptian coup was “good” rests on the claim–the hope, really–that the ends will justify the means. We do not yet know precisely what the ends will be, though there are hopeful signs of a swift movement to elections. There are already reasons to be concerned about the means–such as the army’s killing of Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators, the poor treatment of journalists, and so on.

Perhaps there can be no “good” outcomes–yet–in a country evidently lacking the foundations for liberty.