Good Coups, Bad Coups and Double Standards

Joost Lagendijk
July 18, 2013

To be honest, when the Egyptian military overthrew President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood (MB) government on July 4, I did not expect a long debate on the question whether or not this power grab should be labeled a coup. As many observers formulated it that day: It looks like a coup, it smells like a coup, it acts like a coup. So who would seriously want to challenge that observation?

It turned out, most governments in the region and beyond did. Turkey and Tunisia were the exceptions when they spoke out strongly against the take over by the army. It's no coincidence that both countries are wholly or partly run by parties that have close ideological ties with the MB. The African Union reacted quickly by suspending Egypt's membership. That was it.

The U.S. administration expressed its concerns but, despite pressure from academia and think tanks to do otherwise, kept avoiding the term "coup," fully aware of the fact that there is a legal requirement that forces the U.S. to suspend aid to countries where the military has deposed a democratically elected government. Apparently, Washington does not want to lose the leverage on Cairo it believes the U.S. has because of the billions it donates for military equipment and debt forgiveness.

The EU declaration was weak as well for reasons that I still fail to understand fully. It is probably a mix of diplomatic cautiousness pushed too far, worries that a powerful condemnation would put the EU funds for Egypt (already under attack for a lack of accountability) in danger and little love lost for Morsi and the MB.

Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan immediately jumped on the European failure to speak out against the coup and accused Brussels of hypocrisy. That condemnation went down well in Turkey where broadly shared bad memories of coup d'états are combined with deeply rooted suspicions about perceived European double standards on issues related to Turkey or other majority Muslim countries.

The problem with such outspoken self-righteousness is that it easily backfires: The current Sudanese ruler Omar Hassan al-Bashir, indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court but a good friend of the current Turkey's government, came to power 24 years ago after staging a military coup against the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi. So although Erdogan definitely has a point on EU's feebleness in the case of Egypt's coup and he gets away with his selective memory on Sudan's recent history at home, these discrepancies were not lost on seasoned diplomats in Europe.

The Turkish government bashing the U.S. and the EU also contrasted sharply with the deafening silence coming from Ankara on the explicit welcoming of the military coup by the rich Arab monarchies. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait promised no less than $12 billion support to the new regime in Cairo. As Marc Lynch, professor at George Washington University, put it in Foreign Policy:

It's pretty clear what the counter-revolutionary Gulf monarchs expect for their generosity, and it's not democracy. The conservative Gulf states would like to buy a new Mubarakism and a final end to all of this Arab uprising unpleasantness.

Curious to know what Erdogan's take is on that. Most probably we will not hear much about that because Turkey, at least at the moment, has a lot of common interests with the Saudis in the fight against the bloody Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria.

The good thing about a free press is that the debate on 'Yes or No Coup' continues, especially in the U.S. A few days ago, the New York Times published a breaking story that seemed to show that powerful groups and individuals related to the old Mubarak regime had done their utmost for months to undermine Mr. Morsi's administration, for instance by blocking energy supplies, causing power cuts and long lines at petrol stations. Implicit conclusion: the move of the army against Morsi was not a reaction to the millions protesting on the streets a few days before, but a well prepared and executed anti-MB plan that has all the characteristics of a classic coup.

After the military started arresting dozens of MB leaders and cracking down on pro-Morsi media, Associated Press, influential in setting global standards, decided to change course and began calling the military overthrow a coup.

Why is correctly labeling what happened in Egypt so important? On the website The Monkey Cage, specialized American academics who studied coups all over the world expressed clearly why this ongoing dispute is vital:

Coups are bad for democracy, international responses to coups matter, and Egypt's path towards (or away from) democracy will likely hinge upon strong international pressure to return to elections and respect the electoral outcome as soon as possible.


PN member Joost Lagendijk has been Member of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2009. He is now living and working in Turkey as a Columnist for the Turkish dailies Zaman and Today's Zaman.


Originally published on

Photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos.

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