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Are coups really contagious?

The international reaction to a coup attempt may matter more than you think

People protest October’s military coup over the weekend in Khartoum, Sudan. On Sunday, military and civilian leaders reached a deal to reinstate Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, who was ousted in the coup and had been under house arrest for the past month. (EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Recent coups in Guinea, Chad, Mali and Sudan prompted the Economist to observe that 2021 has seen more coups than “the previous five years combined.” A recent Wall Street Journal article claimed that coups in Africa have reached their “highest level since [the] end of colonialism.” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres last month decried the “epidemic of coup d’etats.”

Are coups indeed contagious? Many observers claim they “spread” because new coup plotters learn from others’ actions.

This year’s coups are probably not contagious in the sense that coup plotters are learning tactics from one another. But recent successes may have taught plotters one valuable lesson: The international community isn’t likely to condemn their actions in any meaningful way.

Sudan’s military seized control. Will pro-democracy protests continue?

What is coup contagion?

In her 1970 book The Barrel of a Gun,” South African scholar Ruth First observed that “what the military of one state do today, their confreres next door may do tomorrow.” She saw coup contagion as the result of an old-boy network. Transnational networks of soldiers from colonial-era armies would imitate their foreign colleagues’ actions. In the 1960s, after coups cascaded across former British colonies, political scientist Onyeonoro S. Kamanu argued that “contacts and common experiences” at institutions such as the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst in the United Kingdom “created some degree of esprit de corps among the various military elites, a fact which has helped set the stage for reciprocal influence across national frontiers.”

Others argue that unhappy factions simply observe and imitate actions of their contemporaries in other countries. Jerry Rawlings’s 1981 coup in Ghana, some experts claim, inspired various “coups from below,” perhaps most famously the successful 1983 coup in Burkina Faso, which placed Thomas Sankara in power.

Some leaders deliberately promote coups in other countries. Libya’s former dictator, Moammar Gaddafi, was rumored to have promoted dozens of different coup plots. Critics accuse the United Arab Emirates and Egypt of similar behavior.

In 1975, political scientists Richard P.Y. Li and William R. Thompson undertook the first systematic examination of the theory of coup contagion using a global sample, finding that coups were more likely in one country after a coup occurred in a different country. Political scientists Fabrice Lehoucq and Aníbal Pérez-Liñán examined coups in Latin America over 106 years, finding that coups in one country reduced the likelihood of a coup in neighboring countries. Contrast this with political scientists James Lutz and Tormod K. Lunde’s findings in Africa, which show that recent coups in one country increased the likelihood of coups in neighboring countries. Most recently, Michael K. Miller, Michael Joseph and Dorothy Ohl found no relationship between recent coups in one country and future coups in other countries around the world.

Guinea’s citizens don’t want a corrupt government. They don’t want military rule either.

These arguments miss the point

Arguments for coup contagion often overlook the importance of what happens next, after a coup. Here’s an example: The 1952 Egyptian Free Officers Movement actually only appeared “infectious” years later, after President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rise as a regional icon. We might expect contagion only when foreign observers of coups see a precedent worth emulating. Without capturing post-coup dynamics, studies are unlikely to capture the conditions that lead to coups.

In other words, it’s likely that some statistical tests simply don’t capture how contagion works. Specifically, “empirical” tests often examine a short time frame. Of the coups probably inspired by the 1952 Egyptian Free Officers coup, Iraq’s Free Officers coup took place six years later, Nasserist officers overthrew Yemen’s Imamate 10 years later, and Gaddafi and Libya’s Free Officers took power 17 years later. But the short time horizon (usually three years or less) that would indicate a contagion effect in statistical tests suggests that Egypt’s Free Officers influenced no future coups.

Governments can also forestall coups. Following Egypt’s 1952 coup, Middle East monarchies implemented numerous “coup-proofing” strategies. For example, Jordanian authorities arrested several individuals on potentially fabricated charges of coup plotting, a tactic it also seemingly used earlier this year. Writing for the Monkey Cage after Turkey’s failed 2016 coup, Curtis Bell and Jonathan Powell used cross-national data to illustrate that coup-related arrests increase when recent coup attempts happen in neighboring countries.

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What can coup contagion arguments tell us about 2021?

Why does this matter, exactly? Recognizing whether coups are contagious is important because it implies that other parties — including potential plotters in other countries — may be paying close attention. And what happens in a coup’s aftermath is also an important signal to potential coup plotters.

Political scientist Issaka K. Souaré argues that the African Union served a pivotal role in establishing anti-coup norms by sanctioning coup leaders across the continent. Subsequent studies suggest that the political costs of violating such norms probably contributed to fewer coups in Africa. Megan Shannon and co-authors point out that other countries and international organizations have been more likely to punish coups in the post-Cold War period. Clayton Thyne and colleagues found that harsh reactions from domestic constituents and the international community forced coup leaders to retreat from the political scene.

Are anti-coup norms weakening? Virtually every relevant international organization, particularly the African Union, seemed to ignore Zimbabwe’s 2017 coup. Recent coups have sometimes followed a similar pattern. U.N. Secretary General Guterres in October described an “environment in which some military leaders feel they have total impunity” and called for the international community to pursue “effective deterrence” against coups.

Last month’s coup in Sudan shares few domestic similarities to recent coups in other countries. But coup plotters learn from precedent — and Sudanese officers such as Abdel Fattah al-Burhan may have calculated a modest international reaction to their putsch.

What happened in Egypt in 2013 may be a more logical reference point for Sudan’s Oct. 25 coup leaders. Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi suffered no meaningful consequences after removing Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in July that year — while U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry referred to the coup as “restoring democracy.” This type of international response may have influenced Burhan’s belief that he could similarly derail Sudan’s democratization without repercussions.

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Jonathan Powell (@prof_powell) is an associate professor of political science at the University of Central Florida.

Salah Ben Hammou (@poliscisbh) is a PhD student in security studies at the University of Central Florida.