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The ‘guardian coup’ theory: Was Egypt’s coup actually good for democracy?

The Egyptian military evacuates people from Kasr el-Nile bridge. (Andre Pain/EPA)

There's little question that the Egyptian military's announcement that it had deposed President Mohamed Morsi met the definition of a military coup.

The case that this was bad for democracy is pretty straightforward: Although the military may have been spurred on by mass protests calling for it to intervene and Morsi's government had been decreasingly democratic, the military cancelled the constitution, circumvented the country's legal system, imposed its will on the nation and set a precedent that its authority can supersede not just a president but the will of the people who voted him into office.

But there's also a case to be made that the coup may ultimately serve Egyptian democracy. To be clear, this is not the same as arguing that Morsi was a bad ruler or that Egypt is better served by a military-backed government. The idea that this coup could actually serve Egypt's long-term progress toward democracy is more complicated – and not something we will be able to judge with any certainty except by historical hindsight, many years from now.

There are three different theories for why Egypt's coup may be good for democracy. Each has its merits and weaknesses. And each rests necessarily on some degree of speculation about ultimately unknowable factors: Morsi's plans for the future, the military's internal motivations, the influence of foreign countries such as the United States. But for the moment, it may be the "guardian coup" theory that provides the best case for optimism.

(1) Coup as safeguard against the real threat to democracy.

The most common theory currently being discussed, though perhaps the most problematic, is that the military was merely enforcing the will of the people and safeguarding democracy from its real opponent, who, in this thinking, was Morsi. Democracy, after all, is about much more than just whether or not a leader was democratically elected. Morsi's government appeared to be rapidly accumulating its own power; many critics saw it as becoming authoritarian.

As University of Connecticut political science professor Jeremy Pressman wrote, a coup-backed government might actually be better positioned for "protecting minority rights, creating space for genuine and lasting political competition, and, more broadly, helping Egypt move forward."

A problem with this is that legal processes, not the whims or machinations of unelected generals, are supposed to determine when these sorts of lines have been crossed. It's true that Egypt's court system is far from robust – and often viewed as loyal to former President Hosni Mubarak's old order – but if the military believes that it has to step in because no other institution has the capacity to enforce rule of law, it could have at least delineated clear standards for what merits intervention. While the defense minister did list complaints against Morsi's government when announcing the coup, future presidents have little clarity on what will or will not spur their own ouster. This implicitly leaves the military as the ultimate authority, not the rule of law or democratic ideals.

(2) Protesters, not the military, drove this 'democratic coup.'

In this thinking, the mass demonstrations against Morsi were a sort of direct democracy, with the military merely enforcing popular will. After all, what appeared to be millions of protesters remained defiantly in the public squares when the military gave 48 hours' notice that they would intervene if Morsi could not head off the demonstrations.

Foreign Policy's Joshua Keating explored the theory of the "democratic coup d'etat," put forward by law professor Ozan Varol in the Harvard International Law Journal. According to Varol, a coup has to meet these seven conditions to count as democratic:

(1) the coup is staged against an authoritarian or totalitarian regime; (2) the military responds to persistent popular opposition against that regime; (3) the authoritarian or totalitarian regime refuses to step down in response to the popular uprising; (4) the coup is staged by a military that is highly respected within the nation, ordinarily because of mandatory conscription; (5) the military stages the coup to overthrow the authoritarian or totalitarian regime; (6) the military facilitates free and fair elections within a short span of time; and (7) the coup ends with the transfer of power to democratically elected leaders.

It's too early to tell if Egypt has met conditions six and seven. And we'll never know with absolute certainty whether it met the first condition: Morsi's government was certainly moving in an authoritarian direction, but did he definitively cross the line into authoritarianism? Objective observers could argue both sides of that – and they already are. The big question is whether Morsi's government would have ultimately crossed the line into authoritarianism such that it would meet the first condition in Varol's theory; if it would, then you can hardly fault the military for preempting him. But we can't know that for sure. With Morsi gone, we probably never will.

(3) The 'guardian coup' theory

This theory may be most persuasive: It states that, whatever motivations may have driven a coup or whatever the faults of the government it deposed, changes in the international system after the Cold War make coup-backed governments much more likely to lead a transition to democracy.

Research by Hein Goemans and Nikolay Marinov, published in the British Journal of Political Science and highlighted by the excellent political science blog The Monkey Cage, finds that, since the end of the Cold War, coups have become much more likely to be followed by a democratic election with five years. From 1945 through 1990, only 7 percent of coups were followed by an election. But from 1991 to 2006, it was 34 percent. Still fewer than half, but a remarkable rise.

Goemans and Marinov suggest that the cause here may be that the international system, in which powerful countries such as the United States play a major role in setting norms, pushes coup-backed governments to democratize:

We argue that after the Cold War international pressure influenced the consequences of coups. In the post-Cold War era those countries that are most dependent on Western aid have been the first to embrace competitive elections after the coup. Our theory also sheds light on the pronounced decline in the number of coups since 1991. While the coup d’état has been and still is the single most important factor leading to the downfall of democratic government, our findings indicate that the new generation of coups has been far less harmful for democracy than their historical predecessors.

This theory places a lot of emphasis on how foreign countries such as the United States and international institutions like the United Nations respond to Egypt's coup, and on how attuned Egyptian leaders are to that response.

The good news is that the U.S. and UN have expressed a desire for Egypt to move back toward democracy, that the United States has a close relationship with the military and, most of all, that Egypt is highly reliant on foreign aid and thus more likely to listen to outsiders. The bad news is that the U.S. seemed, in public messages at least, to be signaling with some clarity that it did not want a coup, which happened anyway, and that it has a spotty record on tying aid to democratization in the Middle East.

Maybe this theory is the most persuasive simply because it hasn't yet been disproven. But it could be.