A coup d’état is the sudden, illegal deposition of a government, usually by a small group of the existing state establishment—typically the military—to depose the extant government and replace it with another body, civil or military. A coup d’état is considered successful when the usurpers establish their dominance.
As the polls closed on the final round of Egypt’s presidential election, an 11th hour decree by the ruling junta re-drew the rules of the political game.
Prior to the vote, conventional wisdom dictated that the overt political manoeuvring of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) would come to an end with the election of a new president. Although it seemed clear that the generals had sought to secure victory for a candidate who would protect their interests, it was thought that this process would culminate in a military withdrawal from political life. Sunday’s constitutional declaration confounded this logic. As the votes are counted for a presidency that is shedding powers by the day, analysts are describing the SCAF’s actions as nothing less than a coup. But is this really the case? This post will briefly examine the practical and legal dimensions of the military’s powerplay in order to better understand events as they continue to unfold.
Broadly defined, a coup d’état is the sudden, illegal deposition of a government, usually by a small group of the existing state establishment – in this case the SCAF – to depose the extant government and replace it with another body. The SCAF’s constitutional declaration has undoubtedly satisfied the final condition: after a decision by the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) to dissolve the nation’s newly elected parliament, the SCAF has moved at alarming speed to reclaim legislative powers for itself. It has also assumed the right to control the budget, declare war, and re-establish influence over the drafting of the nation’s new constitution by threatening the current constituent assembly with replacement should it fail to produce a full document within the week.
The problem with applying the Egyptian context as a coup d’état stems from the fact that it is the state itself that decides what is criminal, and if the past months have revealed anything, it is that the junta is willing to go to great lengths to provide legal justifications for its expanding powers.
Egypt’s ostensible transition to civilian rule has been characterised by legal chaos as a series of judicial rulings have confounded predictions at every turn. In April, for example, the Supreme Presidential Elections Commission (SPEC) provoked consternation by its decision to disqualify ten candidates, including three front-runners, from the presidential race. One month later, a single candidate – Ahmed Shafiq – unexpectedly re-entered the race after another court ruled that his disqualification had been unconstitutional. When examined individually, these decisions rest on firm legal ground. As constitutional scholar Nathan Brown points out, the overturned ‘political isolation’ law that barred Mubarak-era prime minister Shafiq from running on the basis of ties to the former regime, could indeed be interpreted as unconstitutional. Elsewhere, the laws that governed last year’s parliamentary elections could reasonably be interpreted as a breach previous SCC rulings requiring independents to have the same chances to get elected as party members. Nevertheless, the issue here is not the individual decisions themselves, it is the combined damage that the entire body of rulings has wrought on the nation’s political process. Occurring at a surprising speed, these have successfully wrenched power from emerging democratic institutions and placed it in the hands of the generals.
So was this a coup d’état? If we apply a strictly legal definition to the junta’s powergrab then the answer has to be no. After all, the military’s recent political manouevrings have all been sanctioned by Egyptian law. But when examined through the lens of state crime, a different picture starts to emerge. Defined by Green and Ward (2004) as ‘organisational state deviance involving the violation of human rights’, this mode of analysis offers a way to examine the actions of a state – here, the SCAF – that act in a manner that contravenes international norms despite being legally valid within a given territory. Viewed in this light, the SCAF’s legalised powergrab is indeed the crime of a predatory state and as such, can indeed be labelled a coup. The institution has repeatedly abused its power to re-write the rules of the political game, and this latest move denies opposition forces the right to meaningful political participation, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. In addition, it creates a legal pretext to justify crackdowns by formalising the power to arrest those deemed responsible for the highly ambiguous charge of creating ‘internal unrest‘. This is a direct contravention of the right to freedom from arbitrary arrest or detention, a particularly horrifying prospect when Egypt’s prisons continue to be identified as sites of torture.
When the stakes are this high, semantics matter. And in understanding the SCAF’s latest power play as both a coup d’état and a state crime, its obstructive and censurable nature is laid bare.