There are no tanks in the streets. Military marches aren't blaring from the radio. But talk of coups seems to be everywhere. The Egyptian military government's on June 14 -- just prior to the announcement of presidential election results -- has been widely described as a "slow-motion coup." The Pakistani Supreme Court's dismissal of two prime ministers in less than a week has been called a "judicial coup." Former Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo has called his rapid impeachment last week a "parliamentary coup." The Atlantic's James Fallows even responded to the U.S. Supreme Court's possible ruling against President Barack Obama's individual health-care mandate with a blog post titled, "5 Signs the United States is Undergoing a Coup."
In each of these cases, there has been a lively debate over whether the use of the word "coup" is warranted (except perhaps in the case of Fallows, who decided to tone down his own headline later in the day). The term coup d'état (literally "strike of state") has been in use since French King Louis XIII took power by exiling his own mother in 1617, though the basic concept is much older. The United States aside, the real question today should be not whether these are coups, but what kind they are. The modern coup d'état can be divided into three -- possibly four -- somewhat overlapping types.
First, there's the classic military coup that was prevalent in Africa and Latin America during the Cold War. The definition here is fairly narrow. "One, it's an abrupt event, not a gradual changing of laws," says political scientist and forecaster Jay Ulfelder. "Second, there's some aspect of illegality. Third, there's the use or threat of force. All of that defines what just happened in Egypt or Paraguay out of the picture, but it's not what many people mean when they say 'coup.'"
The most recent example of an old-school coup was the Malian government's overthrow by the military on March 21. The governments of Fiji, Mauritania, Madagascar, Niger, and Guinea-Bissau have also been overthrown by relatively by-the-book coups since 2006. Despite these examples, classic military coups are still fairly rare these days compared with the height of the Cold War (1964 alone saw 12 military coups).
So where have all the coups gone? In a widely cited 2011 paper, political scientists Hein Goemans and Nikolay Marinov attribute the decline of military coups to the end of Cold War superpower competition. Whereas military juntas could once count on the support of either the Soviet Union or the United States depending on their ideological orientation, in the post-Cold War world, political stability is more valued and coups are frowned upon. Goemans and Marinov also argue that coup governments are now more likely to revert to at least semi-democracy in a short period of time (this has already happened in Niger) rather than face international isolation and sanctions.
The second type is the self-coup -- known in Spanish as an autogolpe -- in which a government that came to power through democratic means gradually erodes a country's democratic institutions to keep itself in power permanently. The Peruvian autogolpe of 1992, in which President Alberto Fujimori dissolved Congress with the help of the military, is a classic example. Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and Russia's Boris Yeltsin have also been accused of instituting slow-motion self-coups. The "deep state" operated by the Pakistani military and security apparatus is arguably a type of perpetual self-coup as well.
Some have termed the recent actions of Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) an autogolpe, but the label doesn't completely fit because the SCAF was never democratically elected to begin with. Steven A. Cook, an Egypt expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that a better precedent for Egypt may be Turkey's 1997 "post-modern coup," in which the military brought down an Islamist government through behind-the-scenes pressure and leaks to the media rather than through an overt military show of force. "The defining characteristic of a post-modern coup is not putting troops on the streets," Cook said in an interview with Foreign Policy. "Instead, you have the informal institutions of the state and past patterns of civil-military relations at work. It's a more subtle kind of way to get what they want." Indeed, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, leader of the SCAF, reportedly requested a translated copy of Turkey's 1982 Constitution, which gives the military wide oversight powers, shortly after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak.
Cook argues that "post-modern coups" demonstrate the frailty of a military regime. "The Turkish military is actually pretty weak because it's always had to intervene to keep the political system along the lines that it wants," he says. Cook predicts that because of popular pressure, Egypt's military authorities will have an even more difficult time than their Turkish counterparts in maintaining control over political developments.