Military coups were once considered things that happened in faraway places where strongmen had not conceded to civilian rule. But not anymore. A lively debate about coups has now kicked off in mainstream American discourse.
The words being bandied about are either borrowed from the French (coup d’état), Spanish (golpe) or, less frequently, German (Militarputsch). Until now the debate has revolved around a simple question. Was the assault on Capitol Hill a coup attempt?
Here in Foreign Policy, Paul Musgrave argued that it was a “coup attempt,” while Naunihal Singh maintained that, however disturbing the events may have been, they did not fit the definition of a coup.
But framing the debate as yes-or-no question limits our ability to understand what happened. When new or unprecedented events occur, analysts need a new vocabulary to discuss them.
The assault on Capitol Hill is best understood as a specific type of coup attempt—one that I call a “coup from below”—in which civilians are the ones who plot, instigate, and mobilize.
In a conventional military coup, members of the armed forces either act alone, or in some cases are aided and abetted by civilians. But in coups from below, these power dynamics are reversed: civilians take on the role of protagonists, while the military is relegated to a secondary role. These dynamics may change, if military or security officials later gain the upper hand, as they often do.
I lived through a coup in Egypt in 2013 that even experts failed to recognize as such. In my book Coups and Revolutions, I argue that we need to change the way policymakers and academics think about coups—and how we respond to them.
The overthrow of democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi in 2013 was so confounding that the Obama Administration chose not to decide whether it was a coup. The stakes were high: Labeling it as a coup meant U.S. military aid would be suspended. But since it was not deemed a coup, aid continued to flow. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi incited his supporters to rally around him, which he used as a mandate to rule and go after his opponents. In August, more than 900 people were killed by Egyptian security forces during the Rabaa massacre. Human Rights Watch called it Egypt’s Tiananmen.
The United States’ failure to designate the ouster of Morsi as a coup had dire consequences for Egypt. Continued Western silence in the face of unrelenting abuses has only emboldened Sisi, while the prospect of genuine stability and prosperity becomes ever less likely.
If Americans fail to recognize the assault on Capitol Hill as a coup attempt, and not just an act of mob violence, citizens and officials will continue to underestimate the nature of the threat, with potentially deadly repercussions.
There are three reasons why experts have failed to recognize the possibility of a coup attempt happening on U.S. soil. First, the study of military coups and other forms of contentious politics (such as social movements or revolutions) are sequestered into different academic subfields. This makes it harder to understand how a protest movement can evolve into a coup.
Second, racial bias has led both scholars and government officials to underestimate the threat from white protesters, even when they openly espouse extremist views.
Finally, Chapter 115 of the U.S. Criminal Code that covers “Treason, Sedition, and Subversive Activities” makes no mention of military coups. The omission is telling. Coups are distinct from these other activities because they do not necessarily entail the “destruction” or “overthrow” of the government. Rather, they are an attempt to either seize power or prolong a chief executive’s hold on power through undemocratic means. If the instigators are members of the armed forces, these events are recognized as military coups. But such acts can just as easily be instigated by civilians.
Jan. 6 may have started as protest, but it evolved into a coup attempt—just like what happened in Egypt in 2013.
Last week’s events were clearly incited by outgoing President Donald Trump, who called on his civilian supporters to march to the Capitol. But some military veterans also heeded his call. Retired Air Force officer Larry Brock was wearing his combat helmet when he breached the Capitol. Ashli Babbit, who was shot on Wednesday, was an Air Force veteran. There are reports that other federal employees with active U.S. government security clearance participated in the assault.
Unlike in Egypt, however, the U.S. military establishment did not intervene to support the coup plotters. But there are questions as to why the Capitol police did not receive backup support much faster, especially as officers were readily available. The governor of Maryland had made clear he was willing to provide National Guard troops, but had to wait for authorization from the Pentagon to cross the border into the District of Columbia.
In an op-ed on Jan. 3, all 10 living defense secretaries spoke in unison against the involvement of the military in politics. The op-ed makes no mention of a potential coup. It did, however, admonish Acting Defense Secretary Christopher C. Miller and his subordinates to respect the “history of democratic transition in our great country.”
The coup attempt failed. The counting of the electoral college votes was merely delayed not entirely derailed. President-elect Joe Biden was certified as the next leader of the United States.
Trump is already trying to deny responsibility and blame those who carried out the coup attempt from below. FBI and Department of Justice officials announced they have opened up 170 subject file investigations and brought charges against 70 people involved in the assault on the Capitol, calling this “the tip of iceberg.”
In August 2019, Brett McGurk and John Allen, who both served as special counterterrorism envoys, warned that white nationalist terrorism constituted a threat on par with the Islamic State. It is now clear that some white supremacists have committed acts of domestic terrorism. Prosecutors should consider them potential coup plotters as well.