Mohamed Morsi is Gone — But Can a Coup Ever Be Good News?

It is safe to say that by virtue of the political and societal environments that allow them, military coups are never a purely good occurrence. Throughout history, however, certain coups led by the military have been less violent and produced more positive change than others. 

My definition of positive for this article is essentially threefold: preconditions for overthrow, method of intervention, and byproducts of the new system. The preconditions must possess little to no means of viable, democratic transition, and the country must be faced with difficulties that justifiably are linked to the current leadership. The method of intervention is essentially positive if it is nonviolent. The byproducts of the new system may be classified as positive if they are genuine efforts to correct the dangerous preconditions that prompted the military intervention. At this point I would also like to note that the classification of “positive” for military coups is extremely relative. Never are military coups ideal relative to peaceful, viable democratic transfers of power. They can only be classified as “positive” at all when the state in which they occur is incapable of undertaking peaceful, viable democratic transfers of power.

Ghana has a long history of the military intervening in politics to determine the country's leadership. While it can be said that since 1966, Ghana has undergone arguably five military coups d’état, they have not all been bloody or detrimental to the progress and success of the country. The first Ghanaian coup in February 1966 was nonviolent coup in which the military removed President Kwame Nkrumah and dismissed his ministers. The military kept in place the bulk of the Ghanaian civil service and attempted to right the wrongs of the economic policies of President Nkrumah. By all conventional measurements, this coup was a positive one. It was nonviolent. It was prompted by an immediate threat to the population: serious economic hardships. After the military coup of 1966, the Ghanaian coup leaders created the National Liberation Council to right the economic wrongs of the previous administration, and elections were held two and half years later. While these attempts to steer the country in the proper direction were unsuccessful and prompted several other coups in the following decade, the initial Ghanaian military coup in 1966 may be considered positive.

The military coup on everyone’s mind and in every publication, however, is the recent military-led ouster of Egypt’s democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi. The common editorial theme surrounding this occurrence is the question of whether or not it was a positive military coup. Using the threefold scale established in this article, I think the answer is clearly yes … and no. The preconditions that led to the massive swell of discontent in Egypt, prompting the military to intervene, clearly point to democratic deficiencies in what Mr. Morsi and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood did (or did not do) in their year of power. The message was clear that Egypt deposed former President Hosni Mubarak because of his oppressive, undemocratic leadership. This fueled animosity that culminated in a relatively democratic replacement of Egyptian leadership. Egypt and the world waited with anticipation for the democratic future of the most populous Arab country to unfold. Yet Mr. Morsi and the Brotherhood failed to establish a constitution that reflected the pluralistic society’s democratic demands of separation of powers, freedom of thought and expression, and free and fair elections. Were these realities in place, the discontent of millions of Egyptians could have been played out at the ballot box. But it turned out that in Egypt, the “ultimate check” was not with the people, but the military.

While the military existed as the only viable means of replacing Mr. Morsi, the question of whether this is a positive development overall is not so clearly answered in Egypt’s recent coup d’état. The extensive bloodshed dramatically undermines the Egyptian military’s claim to a positively ushered transition. Though Mr. Morsi failed to thoroughly answer Egypt’s call for true democracy, his ascent to power was a democratic one. This fact should carry weight when measuring the justification of the revolutionary guard’s recent political involvement.