Are coups always bad?

“Allahu akbar” shouted Syrian and Egyptian soldiers in the Saudi Arabian desert in January 1991, when news crept in at 3:00 a.m. that Saddam Hussein had fired Scuds on Israel. Jubilantly, they warmly embraced and cheered for Abu Uday. Suddenly, however, the troops became cautiously mute, remembering that this man, Saddam Hussein, was supposed to be their enemy. That is why they were in the Arabian Desert after all, to expel him from Kuwait. Pretty much the same applied to Arab democrats on July 3, when a bloodless coup toppled democratically elected President Mohammad Morsi.

In every Arab city, masses cheered when Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, commander of the Egyptian armed forces, announced his military orders, after Morsi failed to meet the 48-hour ultimatum given to him by the Armed Forces. Coming at the heels of massive demonstrations against the Muslim Brothers, the coup was sugar-coated as a swift reaction to popular demands — giving birth, yet again, to the Arab Spring. At the end of the day, however, when an army steps in, topples (or arrests) a democratically elected president, appoints an interim replacement within less than 24-hours, and then suspends the constitution, there is no other term to describe it: a coup is a coup. And, Arab democrats don’t like coups — or officers. This, after all, is what the Free Officers did to King Farouk in 1952. Eventually, 1952 produced Husni Mubarak. This is what Muammar al-Gaddafi did to King Idriss in 1969. Eventually, that led to the Libyan Revolt of 2011. This is what Hafez al-Assad did to Nur al-Din al-Atasi in 1970. Eventually, that led to Bashar al-Assad in 2000.

First, in no manner should we try to belittle the patriotic millions who took to the streets of Cairo. They were the fuel that the officers used to legitimize their coup. Without them, this would not have happened. This is the first coup in history that comes with such vigorous popular backing. We should also not belittle the officers, who stood with the people, rather than against them.

Egyptians, however, ought to beware of the officers. The people of Egypt are poorly versed in coup history, suffering only one real coup in July 1952. We in Syria have had 21. Ambitious officers always come up with creative explanations and sexy slogans as to why they seized power: “preserving republicanism, upholding constitutionalism, or doing away with authoritarianism.” Ambitious officers meddling in politics, no matter how sugar-coated their meddling looks like, ought not to be trusted blindly. Every single one of our coup leaders described themselves as “transitional.” Every single one of them promised to cede power to civilians once parliamentary elections take place. In Egypt’s case today, they will probably do that, propping up a civilian proxy at the Presidential Palace in Cairo, be it Hamdin Sabahi, Amr Moussa, or Mohammad El Baradi. The elections will look, sound, and feel democratic. People will indeed vote, in large numbers, for anybody but the Muslim Brotherhood. The officers will then reign, through a civilian front, for years to come.

We now have to ask ourselves: Are coups always bad? And, are legitimate presidents untouchable like the Bible or the Quran? Because of our bad experience with coups, we tend to permanently associate their engineers with suppression, lack of freedoms, arbitrary arrests, flamboyant generals, and decades-long rule. Coups certainly have never lead to democracy, not with an ambitious officer class, weak democratic institutions, and Western meddling in Arab affairs. There are always exceptions. We have the example of Adib al-Shishakli of Syria, a military general who toppled a democratically elected president, yet nevertheless, got his country running on its feet, economically, socially, educationally, and culturally. He scored poorly on democratic principles, but today, sixty years after his political demise, Syrians speak of his era with a sparkle in their eye. As for legitimacy, by virtue of its success, the coup itself has now become legitimate. Famously, Lebanese journalist Ghassan Tueini once came to Damascus, complaining to Prime Minister Fares al-Khury about the 1949 coup, which toppled democratically elected president Shukri al-Quwatli. The coup was “illegitimate” fumed Tueini. Khury smiled, “But the coup has succeeded my son. It has become legitimate!”

When massive demonstrations broke out against Lebanese president Bechara El-Khoury in 1952, he stepped down although he too was 100 percent legitimate. Charles de Gaulle was also a legitimate president, hailed as father of his country’s independence, yet he also stepped down. When accused of developing authoritarian tendencies, de Gaulle famously said: “Who honestly believes that, at age 67, I would start a career as a dictator?” Mohammad Morsi’s great fault is that although legitimate, unlike de Gaulle, he actually decided to launch a career as a dictator, at the age of 61. Morsi did this to himself; he is to blame for what happened.

The officers did the right thing.

Huffington Post, 7 August 2013