The comic book was titled ". . . How About Trying Democracy?" Handed out across Ivory Coast by voter education groups before elections five years ago, it told the story of a wise king who thwarts a coup, releases the chief plotter and, in a stirring show of principle, allows the craven lout to stand for election.

"That's the ideal," an Ivorian political analyst sighed the other day, as the complex realities of a real-life coup began to settle upon the country once considered among the most stable in West Africa.

The wonder here is not only that Ivory Coast had a coup with a once-retired general appearing on television to sweep aside President Henri Konan Bedie and the party that had ruled for four decades. Also noted--with a mixture of surprise and indignation--is the muted response the drama stirred abroad. Condemned in only the strongest terms for the record, the change of government Dec. 24 was readily accepted in private, and in some cases welcomed, by many diplomats here.

"If it's a coup, it's a good coup," said an African diplomat from a country that had vociferously denounced a transfer of power by any but democratic means.

"There's the principle and there's the practicality," explained a Western diplomat. "Some people are calling what Bedie did over the last six years a civil coup d'etat."

The muted responses emerge from two realities of contemporary Africa, analysts said. One was the unpopularity of the Bedie government, which alienated its citizens and other governments by behaving autocratically while maintaining a facade of democracy.

And there is a widespread assumption that the military government in Cote d'Ivoire, as the former French colony is officially known, will be as temporary as the ruling junta says. Because while Western-style democracy has not quite flourished across sub-Saharan Africa since the Cold War, military governments have grown rare indeed.

Only Sudan, where President Omar Hassan Bashir is also a general, and the Congo Republic, governed by Gen. Denis Sassou-Nguesso, are ruled by military regimes. Meanwhile, the list of nations where generals have called elections and respected the outcome grows. A new president was inaugurated in Niger the very day Bedie may have sealed his doom in front of Ivory Coast's legislature, delivering an angry speech that defied calls to release jailed political opponents.

Soldiers took to the streets the next day.

"Were they inspired by Niger? Or by Nigeria?" asked the Western diplomat. In Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, a civilian president took office last year after elections called by the general who succeeded the late Gen. Sani Abacha. "They've seen two of their neighbors go through relatively smooth democratic processes."

Beyond Africa, the international response to the coup has been marked by mixed signals. Shortly after the coup was announced by Gen. Robert Guei, a former army chief of staff, the United States suspended aid to Ivory Coast. France followed suit this week by withholding military aid. In Africa, however, far more attention was paid to what France did not do: intervene on Bedie's behalf.

As the slowest colonial power to leave Africa, France for years felt free to meddle in the governments it still spends more than $5 billion a year to support. And when soldiers chased Bedie out of his presidential palace, he found refuge at the French ambassador's residence.

But true to a two-year-old policy of noninterference, no French troops moved to restore Bedie to power. In Paris, Bedie's fate was called a warning to other African rulers. In Abidjan, another diplomat cited the embattled presidents of Zimbabwe and Kenya, two other nations also long known for their stability: "If I were Robert Mugabe or Daniel arap Moi . . . I would be very worried," the diplomat said.

"This change without blood being spilled is very important," said Alassane Ouattara, the former Ivory Coast prime minister whom Bedie had ordered arrested. Ouattara said he will run for president once elections are scheduled.

A former deputy director of the International Monetary Fund, Ouattara once was in the position of denying unelected governments aid. But a coup can also be an agent of positive change.

"Of course we condemn any coup, because a coup is not a democratic way to come to power," he said. "But if it's removing a dictator from power, is that a good thing or a bad thing?"

Ouattara, who said he lobbied the IMF to go easy on Niger after its coup, called for donors to consider "a new convention" in cases such as Ivory Coast, which he said desperately needs money during the transition to democratic elections.

The Organization of African Unity, which once embraced whoever held a country's throne, no longer seats rulers who came to power by force. To avoid the issue at its next summit, it is pushing Ivory Coast to hold elections, originally scheduled for October, before June. And on Wednesday, a U.N. special envoy met with Guei to encourage an early return to constitutional rule.