Coup d’etat is an important, often violent type of political leadership change. Coups involve a small group of conspirators plotting to seize state power and then doing so on their own or with the support of others. Coup attempts are swift, lasting hours or a few days. Often attempts fail, but if state power is taken and held, the event is a coup d’etat. Both failed and successful coups may involve many deaths as a result of fighting between the coup participants and loyal armed forces, or they may be bloodless coups in which no one dies. Historically most coups have been military coups involving elements from the state’s own military and police because their firepower is needed to crush any possible opposition. When coups overthrow constitutionally elected governments, they are forceful, illegal means of political change. When coups are against dictatorships they are sudden, unexpected, and irregular means of political change.
The term coup d’etat (“blow against the state”) comes from Napoléon Bonaparte’s use of his troops on the 18th Brumaire (November 9, 1799) to overthrow the constitution of the First French Republic and ultimately to place himself in power as emperor. After independence in the early nineteenth century, most Latin American states experienced repeated coups (Los Golpes Militares ) led by innumerable caudillos (dictators), a phenomenon lasting until the 1980s. After decolonization, coups d’etat occurred in many new states of North Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. The 48 states of sub-Saharan Africa have seen the most coups, with 40 states experiencing 83 successful and 112 failed coups between 1956 and 2004. While rare in developed countries, coups have occurred in Europe, in Greece in 1967 and in Portugal in 1974. On some occasions coups have brought to power men who tried to better their countries, but generally coups have produced poor political leadership, further impoverishing their countries.
Coup leaders often proclaim themselves “revolutionaries,” but coups are not revolutions. Revolutions involve armed conflict; some coups do not. Revolutions last for months or years, coups last mere hours or days. Revolutions are mass political events involving much of the population; coups are made by a few coup-makers who are often political or military elites. Revolutionaries seek fundamental social, economic, and political change; coup-makers may seek this, but they may act to prevent change or merely to gain the rewards of political office. Revolutions produce profound societal change; coups produce changes in political leadership and often little else.
When countries have weak political institutions—political parties, legislatures, courts, and bureaucracies—they may suffer frequent military interventions into politics. Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington has called such countries praetorian polities. The type of coups they experience and the style of the resulting military rule depend upon the degree of political participation among the population: (1) when participation is low, only among elites, oligarchical coups and rule occur as in Paraguay under Alfredo Stroessner (1954-1989); (2) when participation is moderate, including both elites and the middle classes, radical coups and rule happen as in Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser (1956-1970); and (3) when participation is high, including all social classes, the results are mass coups and rule as in Argentina under Juan Domingo Perón (1946-1955). Huntington’s variables, the strength of political institutions, and the level of political participation are key to understanding why and where coups d’etat happen.
Finer, Samuel Edward. 1988. The Man on Horseback: The Role of the Military in Politics. 2nd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Patrick J. McGowan
coup d'é·tat / ˌkoō dāˈtä/ • n. (pl. coups d'é·tat / ˌkoō dā ˈtä(z)/ ) another term for coup (sense 1).