Coup Fever

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In the last year alone, military coups have shaken governments in Thailand, Libya, Egypt, and the Central African Republic.

It’s chaos these days in Libya.

Rival militias have carved up the country and the major cities. The security situation has deteriorated to such an extent that legislators in Tripoli recently had to abandon their parliament building for a former royal palace.

There they managed to elect a new prime minister—a 42-year-old businessman, the fifth such leader since the ouster of Muammar Gadaffi in 2011. Rebels in the oil-rich east, however, have rejected the parliament’s choice and continue to occupy—and thus close down—the country’s oil ports. With the potential of pumping 2 million barrels of oil a day, Libya could be the richest country in Africa—if it could only get its act together.

Political instability, well-armed militias, and serious riches: the perfect conditions, in other words, for a coup.

The latest man with a plan for Libya is a former CIA-backed general from Virginia. Khalifa Haftar was a foot soldier in the coup that brought Gadaffi to power. After the disastrous war with Chad, Haftar split with the Libyan dictator and, with the help of the CIA, launched a quixotic resistance movement. Eventually he decamped for a home not far from CIA headquarters in Langley. In 2011, he returned to Libya and set about reestablishing a base out of the eastern city of Benghazi.

This February, Haftar announced the overthrow of the government, but no uprising ensued. So, this month, he decided to take it to the streets, battling Islamist militias in Benghazi and rejecting the authority of the Libyan parliament. Some of his compatriots attacked the parliament building on May 18 and sent the legislators running for cover. Haftar’s “Operation Dignity” has attracted the support of sections of the Libyan military along with the Interior Ministry and the country’s UN ambassador—and not to mention the thousands of Libyans who have demonstrated in the streets on behalf of the general as an alternative to Islamist militias and politicians.

For all the blather these days about democracy-building and transparent governance, coups are now all the rage. “I love a man in a uniform,” the Gang of Four once sang, tongue in cheek, but many Libyans are now taking such lyrics seriously.

It’s not just Libya. Coup fever seems to be spreading. The Thai military last week pushed the reset button in Bangkok, the latest of a dozen coups the country has experienced since 1932. In Egypt, coup leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is trying to persuade Egyptians to turn out and vote for him as president. Just in the last five years, we’ve seen coups in the Central African Republic (2013), Guinea Bissau (2012), Mali (2012), Kyrgyzstan (2010), Niger (2010), Honduras (2009), and Madagascar (2009). And that doesn’t count the attempted coups in Ecuador, Papua New Guinea, Malawi, Sudan, Chad, and elsewhere.

Military coups have an enduring appeal. When societies are gummed up by political gridlock and no way forward seems possible, all sorts of men in uniform start to ride up on their white horses. They offer simple, black-and-white solutions to complex problems. They present themselves as the embodiment of nationalism. They dress nicely and have great posture.

Here are three reasons why, despite the lip service given to democracy the world over, coups remain a popular last resort (and, for some countries, a repeated resort).

1)   Political Tool

The military usually presents itself as above the petty manipulations of politics. The generals represent parliament as a “talking shop,” politicians as corrupted by economic interests, and civil society as manipulated by outside forces. The military meanwhile is above the fray. They style themselves the high priests of secular society, the invokers and protectors of the national will.

The reality is a great deal different, of course. Consider the situation in Thailand, where the military is just another chess piece and far from neutral. Rather, it has traditionally sided with the conservatives against the populists, the yellow shirts against the red shirts. Since the populists have won elections for more than a decade, the military has been chafing at the bit to “restore order.”

As Walden Bello writes this week in Foreign Policy In Focus, “It is indeed difficult not to see the putsch as the final step in a script deftly managed by the conservative ‘royalist’ establishment to thwart the right to govern of a populist political bloc that has won every election since 2001. Utilizing anti-corruption discourse to inflame the middle class into civil protest, the key forces in the anti-government coalition have, from the start, aimed to create the kind of instability that would provoke the military to step in and provide the muscle for a new political order.”

2)   War By Other Means

A map of the Central African Republic (CAR) should be what you see when you open the dictionary to “coup.” Its post-colonial history has been an almost unbroken story of strong-arm leaders strong-arming each other out of power. The roundelay began when the country became independent under David Dacko in 1960, who was deposed by Jean-Bedel Bokassa in 1965, who was ousted by Dacko again in 1979, who was kicked out by Andre Kolingba in 1981. A period of non-military rule began in 1992, led by Ange-Felix Patasse. In 2001, Kolingba attempted another coup. In 2003, former army general Francois Bozize seized control of the country but very soon had to crack down on a challenge to his power by another set of rebels. Last year, those rebels eventually ousted Bozize as well, and Michel Djotodia took power in August in the latest coup.

At first glance, what is taking place now in the CAR seems to be a straightforward civil war with roots going back a decade or more. After Bozize’s 2003 coup, a “bush war” raged until 2008 between the government and different armed militias. Peace agreements eventually led to unity governments.

But there were various external factors as well: the French intervening on the side of the Bozize government, spillover from the fighting in Sudan, the Lord’s Resistance Army invading from Uganda followed by the Ugandan army in pursuit. The factional fighting is intensified by sectarian violence. The country is divided between a mostly Christian south and a mostly Muslim north. Djotodia, who displaced Bozize, was the country’s first Muslim leader, and his Seleka rebel group began attacking the majority Christian population. Christian militias retaliated with a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Muslims. In recent days, French forces have been fighting the mostly Muslim Seleka coalition rebels, who have been ousted from power.

The CAR, in other words, has been in a state of almost continuous war since its independence. The coup, in this case, is not a political tool. Rather, it is the ultimate military strategy for seizing political power in a chaotic situation.

3)   We All Want Daddy

Virtually every country has a Leader Complex. We both rebel against the Father-in-Chief and seek to replace him with another Father-in-Chief. But no one ever lives up to the Founding Father. The coup is an effort to sweep away all the lesser paternal figures and somehow recapture some of the lost prelapsarian glory.

Egypt certainly has a Daddy Complex, with Gamal Abdel Nasser standing in as the founding father. He was the architect of modern Egypt. He stood up against colonizers and stared down the United States. He established Egypt as a leading force for pan-Arabism. And he created the authoritarian institutions that have plagued the country ever since.

Last year’s coup leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi certainly encourages comparisons with Nasser. He echoes the same themes that Nasser did in his speeches, and their faces frequently appear together in posters and banners.

Also consider how popular al-Sisi is with the women of Egypt. He “is so popular that his name has been etched into bridal jewelry,” reports The Washington Post. “Women have kissed posters of his face at pro-military demonstrations.” Nermin Nazim, a 50-year-old jewelry designer in Cairo, told The National: “Sisi is sensitive, he understands how to respect his mother, who is his nurturer. He respects his wife, he respects elderly women. I love him like my own dad.”

Turnout, however, has been embarrassingly low in the current presidential election. “I knew Gamal Abdel Nassar,” the Egyptian people are saying, “and you, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, are no Nasser.”

Before you jump to conclusions about the overestimation of the military in the developing world, remember that the military remains the most trusted institution in the United States. According to the annual Gallup poll on confidence in American institutions, the military topped the list once again 2013, with 43 percent of Americans trusting the armed forces “a great deal.” Compare that to how Americans feel about the presidency (19 percent), the Supreme Court (13 percent), newspapers (9 percent), and Congress (5 percent). If you look at the numbers over the years, the military’s trustworthiness has only increased in the eyes of Americans. It’s no wonder that even peace groups are always looking for “validators” among retired brass to “legitimate” their messages of cutting military spending or avoiding intervention overseas.

The United States also has its share of militias that dream of ridding the country of the current leadership and establishing their own emergency regimes. “Since Barack Obama was elected President, militia groups have proliferated in the United States,” writes Nadya Labi in The New Yorker. “In 2010, Daryl Johnson, then a senior domestic-terror analyst at the Department of Homeland Security, found that the number had more than tripled in the past three years, from eighty-five to more than three hundred. The times are conducive to extremist anger: there is a black President, a sputtering economy, a disappearing white majority, and recurring talk of stricter gun laws. According to one expert, the militia movement, which was largely middle-aged in the nineteen-nineties, has recently attracted a surge of younger adherents through social-networking sites.”

As long as the state maintains its monopoly on violence—through the military and the police—these militias will remain isolated. It’s when the state loses that monopoly—in the CAR or what has started to happen in Ukraine—that the trouble begins. The generals step into the political realm when their own positions are threatened by rival claimants to power, whether those are civilian authorities (in the case of Turkey), militias (in the case of Libya), or “the People” themselves (in the case of Thailand).

Feed a cold, starve a fever: that’s the home remedy for the flu.

For coup fever, too, it’s important to starve the militaries—not so that the militias can rival them, but so that political institutions can grow strong enough to stave off the infections. That means getting a handle on the huge flow of money and weapons that strengthen and aggrandize the militaries (and the militias as well). That means restoring the military to its core competencies rather than training it to take on activities better left to diplomats, humanitarian workers, and engineers. That means accepting election results even when they put populists, Islamists, or socialists into power.

There’s no reason for coups to have such enduring appeal. Like those recurring bouts of malaria, they often lead to nothing but more coups. Treating the fever is not enough. We have to look at the underlying infection of the body politic.

John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus.

  • mike

    Wow this article is informative but so superficial and trite like some badly educated smart college kid writing for some mass media rag.

  • henpecked

    Far from being “trite” (as “mike” says), your article provides a readable version of much of the insight that one would have to plow through a lot of learned pieces by such people as such as Sam Huntington to find. I’m glad to have read it, as I was planning to use “I knew Gamal Abd al-Nasir, and you are….” Now I won’t do so without giving credit to you.

    • john feffer

      thanks, henpecked!