How to Recognize and Deal With a Coup
Not all governments or government agencies are immune to the overthrow of power. Yesterday, at the United States Capitol, we witnessed the unthinkable as a mob of Trump-backed extremists stormed the houses of Congress in an attempt to undermine democracy.
The forceful seizure of power inevitably failed, but it had all the hallmarks of a coup d’état, which Merriam-Webster defined as “the violent overthrow or change of the existing government by a small group.” The extremists who flooded Washington, DC yesterday, in addition to a minority of Republican lawmakers who largely encouraged their efforts, insisted that the attempt to seize power by force was not actually a coup.
And therein lies the key: rarely, when the organizers of a coup d’état bluntly declare that they are trying to. This is why it is so important to understand the subversive methods by which coups are often carried out and how you can use individual and collective strength to resist them.
Coups thrive on a sense of public insecurity
Any coordinated effort to overthrow the current government needs a message, whether or not it is actually founded. There are caveats, however: a party that appears to have popular momentum may attract more supporters, no matter how much their message really resonates with the political body.
As Danny Orbach explained in a 2017 review of Nunihal Singh’s book Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups :
Actors don’t join the side they necessarily agree with, but the side they think most other actors are likely to support. Consequently, highly unpopular rebels can succeed and popular rebels fail.
Even if it is not entirely clear that the coup was successfully staged, it is important that the power-stealing group spread the message of victory, usually taking control of the country’s TV channels.
As Orbach writes:
Conspirators do not need to waste time shouting that they are right. Instead, they must prove that they have already won, that the most important actors have already declared their support for the coup. Even if this is not true, such a transmission can create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Countries with weak government institutions are more vulnerable
If a country’s institutions are strong and enjoy public support and respect, it is unlikely that a coup attempt will succeed, let alone succeed. Countries with fragile systems of government that could have been destroyed by war, corruption, or a host of other factors are more likely to succumb to the rogue group’s attempts to topple them.
According to a 2016 article published by the Institute for Economic Law at the University of Hamburg, coups thrive in the right environment:
Countries may be more vulnerable to coups if they have weak political institutions and lack informal institutions that can support resistance to a regime that itself came to power in a coup. This applies to countries that are not democratic or have low per capita incomes, countries that have recently gained independence or underwent a regime change, and countries with a low level of education.
Coups often try to destroy democracy
The United States’ campaigns in Latin America during the Cold War are a great example of how outside actors can spoil a just and legitimate democratic process.
Take the 1973 CIA coup in Chile . The democratically elected Marxist Salvador Allende was brutally overthrown by forces led by General Agosto Pinochet, with the help of then President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. As a more recent example, Egypt plunged into social chaos in 2013 when the country’s first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsy, was ousted by the military a year after he was elected.
Of course, the characteristics of each coup throughout history are different, but one dominant theme has largely remained, especially when a democratically elected regime is overthrown. As stated in a document from the University of Hamburg: “Successful coups lead to both the deterioration of democratic institutions and increased violence.”
How to prepare for and / or stop a coup
Keep in mind that there is no set set of rules, and this is not something that everyone can actually follow on their own. But you must be prepared to take action on the street.
Turkey’s recent example in 2016 shows how popular opposition can form a powerful front against an attempted coup. When parts of the Turkish military tried to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan , killing about 250 civilians after fighter jets bombed parliament and tanks raining down on Ankara and Istanbul, dozens of ordinary civilians filled the streets. Resistance from Turkish citizens and some allies in the armed forces prevented a coup in a matter of hours.
Aside from these life-threatening endeavors, it is imperative that people who think a coup is about to occur remain vigilant and watch out for some of the more subversive warning signs. On a tactical level, it is wise to actively communicate with those around you. As Daniel Hunter writes for the non-profit organization Waging Nonviolence: “Coups are not the time to just watch and wait for ‘somebody’ to figure it out. No matter who you are, you can become part of the choice of democracy. “
Hunter explains this point further, pointing out some plans of action that go beyond your traditional march to Washington:
This is not about protest, but about getting people to reaffirm core values - for example, going to the offices of elected officials to force them to agree to abide by the election results. And it’s not about single action points, such as marches in Washington, but actions, such as mass strikes of youth and students refusing to go to work or school until all the votes have been counted. If you live in a country with crumbling state institutions, crumbling trust in democracy, and powerful public figures who regularly defy traditional norms and deny reality, then it might be time to pay attention.
Moreover, in order to lay the foundation for resistance, you must know what resources are at your disposal. There are many organizations working to keep the rule of law and democracy intact, and should they ever clash, they will be easy to reach. While there are almost always local organizations in your state, city or town, national organizations like Indivisible , Our Revolution, and Stand Up America are always ready to organize and confront threats to democracy, regardless of your zip code.
These are general guidelines for anyone living in a country with crumbling state institutions that undermine confidence in democracy and powerful public figures who regularly defy traditional norms and deny reality. If this all sounds unpleasantly familiar, it might be time to start putting together a plan.
This post was originally published in November 2020 and was updated on January 7, 2021 to reflect current events.