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What does the military coup mean?

January 27, 2014 at 2:22 pm

One of the characteristics of military coups is that the forces which carry them out rarely know much about the objectives of their actions. Indeed, this is true of many military manoeuvres. The soldiers act without knowing which political objectives will be achieved because of their actions; nor do they necessarily know that they are taking part in a coup overthrowing the existing political regime in the country, and that they are replacing it with another system and different political control.

The mobilisation of armed forces requires secrecy and speed in order to outwit the enemy. Orders are carried out and explanations are limited to a “need to know” basis. Scheming and deception are part of the soldier’s trade, especially the higher up the chain of authority you go.

When a regime is changed by a popular movement the goal is clear to all involved. In a coup scenario, it is often only the plotters, usually at a high level in the command structure, who know fully what is going on.

Historically, the most significant military coup in the Middle East took place in 1908 against the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II. Army units walked from Thessaloniki and the Balkans and headed east to the capital, Istanbul, with the soldiers chanting “Long live Sultan Abdul Hamid”; the coup leaders claimed that the troop movements were to protect the Sultan. Once in Istanbul, the soldiers surrounded the royal palace while the senior officers laid their terms before the ruler; he accepted them. This is a textbook example of those whose actions allow the coup to succeed actually having no idea what they were up to; only the leadership was in the know.

In Egypt in 1952, even though the country was ready for a revolution and was waiting for it to occur, junior officers and their troops were told that their mobilisation was to implement a state of emergency. They did not know that they were actually implementing a coup.

In both examples, the armed forces were mobilised allegedly to preserve the security of the state and the existing regime whereas the actual goal was to do the opposite and replace the regime.

As such, it is wrong to place the responsibility for the results of the coup on the junior ranks. That burden falls on the senior officers who decide to lead a coup and effect political change.

This can be observed in Egypt today. Opposition groups rallied the people ostensibly to protect the constitution and state from the Muslim Brotherhood. All the while they were working with the upper echelons of the military to implement a coup and overthrow the elected government. The Minister of Defence played his part when, on June 23, he spoke of the “threat to the Egyptian state” by the political turmoil, and said that the army could not stand by idly when national security was at stake. This prepared the ground for what was claimed to be a benign military intervention in the interests of the country and its security.

It must be understood that “the state” covers all national institutions and regulatory bodies, not just the constitutional and legal systems.

While this was going on, troops were stationed at key points ready to control the main urban centres, in the name of protecting public facilities. This was entirely consistent with the Minister’s statements about protecting the state and its institutions.

Thus, when the coup was announced it was surprising but the people had been prepared for it by the procedure put into place. Hence, the near-ready acceptance of an “interim president” appointed by the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces with the authority to issue constitutional orders, arrest the democratically-elected president and dissolve the parliament.

This means that the armed forces moved to protect the state, its institutions, bodies and systems, and in the process destroyed the state, its institutions, bodies and systems. The goal of the army’s mobilisation switched from protection and preservation to a goal of destruction. The troops on the ground, of course, probably knew very little about this; they were simply obeying orders and doing their bit to protect public facilities.

It was, in every sense, a classic military coup in its planning and execution. It cannot be described, by any stretch of the imagination, as an extension of a popular revolution. To do so is to deny the January 25 Revolution and all that it achieved.

The author is an Egyptian constitutional expert. This article is a summary of a longer Arabic version which appeared in Shorouk Newspaper on 22 July, 2013.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.