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Encyclopedia > Military coup

A coup d'état, or simply a 'coup', is the sudden overthrow of a government, usually done by a small group that just replaces the top power figures. It is different from a revolution, which is staged by a larger group and radically changes the political system. The term is French for "a sudden stroke, or blow, of a nation". The term coup can also be used in a casual sense to mean a gain in advantage of one nation or entity over another; e.g. an intelligence coup. By analogy, the term is also applied to corporations, etc; e.g. a boardroom coup.

Tactically, a coup usually involves control of some active portion of the military while neutralizing the remainder of a country's armed services. This active group captures or expels leaders, seizes physical control of important government offices, means of communication, and the physical infrastructure, such as streets and power plants. The coup succeeds if its opponents fail to dislodge the plotters, allowing them to consolidate their position, obtain the surrender or acquiescence of the populace and surviving armed forces, and claim legitimacy.

Coups typically use the power of the existing government for its own takeover. As Edward Luttwak remarks in his Coup d'état: A practical handbook: "A coup consists of the infiltration of a small but critical segment of the state apparatus, which is then used to displace the government from its control of the remainder." In this sense, use of military or other organized force is not the defining feature of a coup d'état. Any seizure of the state apparatus by extra-legal tactics may be considered a coup, according to Luttwak.



Coups have long been part of political tradition. Indeed, Julius Caesar made a coup and was the victim of another coup. Many Roman emperors, such as Claudius, came to power in coups. Modern dictators such as Juan Perón also benefited from coups.

In the late 20th century coups occurred most commonly in developing countries, particularly in Latin America (Brazil, Chile, and especially Bolivia), Africa and Asia (Pakistan), but also in the Pacific (Fiji) and in Europe (Greece, Portugal, Spain, Soviet Union). Since the 1980s, the coup has been seen somewhat less frequently. A significant reason is the general inability to resolve the economic and political problems of developing nations, which has made armed forces, particularly in Latin America, much more reluctant to intervene in politics. Hence, in contrast to past crises, the armed forces have sat on the sidelines through economic crises such as the Asian crisis in Thailand in 1998 or the Argentine crisis of 2002 and have tended to act only when the military perceives itself as institutionally threatened by the civilian government, as occurred in Pakistan in 1999.

Coups d'état have often been seen as a means for powerful nations to assure favorable outcomes in smaller foreign states. In particular, the American CIA and Soviet KGB developed a reputation for supporting coups in states such as Chile and Afghanistan, respectively. Such actions are substitutes for direct military intervention which would have been more politically unpopular. The governments of France and Britain have been accused of engineering coups as well.

New styles of coups

In recent years, the traditional military coup has declined massively in use. Today, even Africa, once the most coup-plagued continent on earth, rarely experiences a violent overthrow of an existing regime.

A new, more contemporary form of military intervention which some regard as a coup d'état is simple threat of military force to remove a particularly unpopular leader. This has occurred twice in the Philippines. In contrast to previous coups d'état, the military does not directly assume power, but rather serves as an arbiter for civilian leaders.

In recent years mass street protests have also often been able to force leaders from office in a coup-like fashion. In situations of this sort, such as in Serbia (2000), Argentina (2001), Bolivia (2003) and Haiti (2004) popular uprisings simply forced the sitting president to resign his office, causing someone new to assume the presidency. This often results in a period of stability and calm, in which an unknown and uncontroversial Vice President can rule the nation until new elections can be held.

Types of coups

Samuel P. Huntington has divided coups into three types (ignoring Luttwak's non-military coups)

  • Breakthrough coups - In which a revolutionary army overthrows a traditional government and creates a new bureaucratic elite. Breakthrough coups are generally led by non-commissioned officers (NCOs) or junior officers and only happen once. Examples include China in 1911 and Egypt in 1956.
  • Guardian coups - These coups have been described as musical chairs. The stated aim of this form of coup is to improve public order, efficiency, or to end corruption. There is usually no fundamental shift in the structure of power, and the leaders of these types of coups generally portray their actions as a temporary and unfortunate necessity. Many nations with guardian coups undergo many shifts between civilian and military governments. Examples include Pakistan, Turkey, and Thailand.
  • Veto coups - These coups occur when the army vetoes mass participation and social mobilization. In these cases the army must confront and suppress large-scale and broad-based opposition and as a result they tend to be repressive and bloody. Examples include Chile in 1973 and Argentina in 1975. An abortive and botched veto coup occurred in Venezuela in 2002.

Coups can also be classified by the level of the military that leads the coup. Veto coups and guardian coups tend to be led by senior officers. Breakthrough coups tend to be led by junior officers or NCOs. In cases where the coup is led by junior officers or enlisted men, the coup is also a mutiny which can have grave implications for the organizational structure of the military.

There is also a category known as bloodless coups in which the mere threat of violence is enough to force the current government to step aside. Bloodless coups are so called because they involve no violence and thus no bloodshed. Napoleon acceded to the power that way in 1799 (the coup of 18 Brumaire). More recently, Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan came to power in such a manner in 1999.

The term self-coup is used when the current government assumes extraordinary powers not allowed by the legislation. An example is Alberto Fujimori in Peru, who was democratically elected, but later took control of the legislative and judicial powers, or the coup of French President Louis Napoléon Bonaparte in 1851 against the powerful National Assembly.

Post-military-coup governments

After the coup, the military is faced with the issue of the type of government to establish. In Latin America, it was common for the post-coup government to be led by a junta, a committee of the chiefs of staff of the various armed forces. A common form of African post-coup government is the revolutionary assembly, a quasi-legislative body made of members elected by the army. In Pakistan, the military leader typically assumes the title of chief martial law administrator.

According to Huntington, most coup leaders act under the concept of right orders: they believe that the correct approach to government is to issue correct orders. This view of government underestimates the difficulty in implementing government policy and the amount of possible political resistance to certain orders.

Important coups in the 20th century

Recent coups and coup attempts

Currently-serving leaders who came to power via coups


  • Edward Luttwak, Coup d'etat: A practical handbook, Harvard University Press, 1969, 1980. ISBN 06-741-75476

Coup also means:

  Results from FactBites:
Answering Exam Questions (1425 words)
This tradition of the military ejecting the leaders of the state has continued into the Republican era, itself started by a group of former Ottoman generals, and there have been three coups in the last forty years: 27 May 1960, 12 March 1971, and 12 September 1980.
Although we can say the 1960 coup was political (i.e., the result of a clash of views between the military and the party in power), the coups of 1971 and 1980 were moves to protect the security of the country.
Following the 1960 coup, the National Security Council was founded so that the commanders could give their message officially to the civilian government; if this body had existed in 1960, a coup might have been avoided.
Coup d'état (856 words)
Indeed, Julius Caesar was the victim of a coup.
One form of military intervention which some regard as a coup d'état is the use of the threat of military force to remove a particularly unpopular leader.
In cases where the coup is led by junior officers or enlisted men, the coup is also a mutiny which can have grave implications for the organizational structure of the military.
  More results at FactBites »



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