Would things be different in Egypt if the U.S. had called it a coup?

August 16, 2013

Screenshot of Egyptian state TV video of Defense Minister al-Sissi announcing the end of Morsi’s presidency. (YouTube)

Back in early July, as debate raged in Washington over whether or not the United States should label the Egyptian military's July 3 ouster of President Mohamed Morsi a "coup," a political scientist named Clayton Thyne did something most of us hadn't considered: he looked at the empirical evidence.

In a post on the academic group blog The Monkey's Cage, Thyne summarized past research on coups and post-coup governments, based on an examination of 205 coups from 1951 to 2004. He found, as I explained at the time, that coup governments tend to hang on to power longer and make the transition to democracy more slowly when they have support from foreign states and international organizations. What he termed “negative support” – in other words, criticism, for example by labeling the military takeover as a coup – actually seems to make a transition to democracy faster and more likely.

At the time, way back on July 10 when no one was sure how the military-led government would behave, this is the conclusion I reached from Thyne's research: How the United States and other international groups respond to the July 3 coup could play a highly significant role on how this political transition unfolds, what sort of government it leads to and when. In this respect, at least, the best thing for Egypt might be calling it a coup. I continued:

The way that the military rules, however brief its tenure, could play an enormous role in determining whether Egypt successfully transitions to democracy this time around. Thyne writes, “Without strong international pressure in support of democracy, the military in Egypt essentially has a blank check to do whatever they want with the state. We’re quickly seeing this play out with the crackdown of supporters of the previous government.”

The United States did not call what happened a coup. It privately communicated to the military government that it should not crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood, but it exerted little or no public pressure.

Since then, the Egyptian military-led government has behaved counter to any democratic aspirations, violently assaulting pro-Morsi sit-ins, arresting key Brotherhood members and arguing on state TV that the protesters are terrorists who must be forced off of the streets. That and the imposition of "emergency law" have been clear steps in the direction of authoritarianism.

I'm not going to pretend that I predicted what would happen in Egypt, or that the U.S. calling July 3's event a "coup" would have changed things dramatically. As Egypt expert Marc Lynch told my colleague Brad Plumer, "For the military, keeping Washington happy is nice, but they’re willing to pay any cost that we can realistically impose."

Still, it's striking the degree to which the events in Egypt over the last month have conformed to the predictions implicit in Thyne's data. The post-coup government in Egypt did not have to endure much real pressure from the international community, and in fact got some positive support in the form of big loans from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, not to mention U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry publicly stating that the military government was "restoring democracy." One could certainly argue that refusing to call the coup a coup was a form of implicit support, deliberate or not. And then, what do you know, the post-coup government appears to be moving toward autocracy rather than democracy.

The U.S. decision on whether or not to call what happened in Egypt a "coup" was far from the only factor determining how the Egyptian military would behave over the past month. In fact, it probably wasn't even in the top 10 most important factors; the generals care a lot more about what's happening domestically. Still, it is a factor, and you have to wonder how things might have played out differently had the U.S. decided to use the "do we call it a coup" decision to assert some outward pressure on the post-coup government. But, hey, at last they cancelled Bright Star.

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Max Fisher · August 16, 2013