Even the most perfect system breaks down. Tomáš Sedláček

The Rule of Khaki

The ouster of Morsi is only one episode in the long tradition of African state coups. Yet, it contributes to a trend that threatens the blossoming of democracy across the region.

From hosting the OIC Summit meeting in February to overseeing an economy racked by inflation, Egyptian President Morsi failed at governance tasks great and small. Perhaps, the only success of his presidency came in brokering a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel in 2012. A policy supported by the Egyptian military who toppled Morsi earlier this month. Depending on your perspective the coup in Egypt is either the culmination of the 2011 uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak or its greatest reversal. Such are the vagaries of Egyptian politics that authoritarians are now democrats and democrats are now authoritarians.

Coups Everywhere

Still, this putsch will have important ramifications for the Middle East as well as for Africa. As extraordinary as the overthrow of Egypt’s first freely elected President might seem, it is part of a new wave of praetorianism that threatens the blossoming of democracy across the region. The numbers speak for themselves, as there has been at least one coup per year in an African Union state since 2008. That year, the government of Mauritania was overthrown by a group of officers while in 2009 Andry Rajoelina, a former DJ, seized power in Madagascar, becoming its President at the age of just 35.

Even if one ignores the “Arab Spring” coup d’états in Egypt and Tunisia, there have been successful coups in Niger (2010), Guinea-Bissau (2012) and Mali (2012) in recent years. In March this year a coup d’état in the Central African Republic brought an effective end to that country’s civil war. Elsewhere plots simmer. In January, rumors of a coup in Eritrea came to nothing. In April, a coup plot in Chad was broken up at the cost of four lives while that same month across the Libyan border; a group of alleged Gaddafi loyalists attacked a police station in a coup attempt. Rather than “politics as usual,” failed coup attempts can precipitate successful ones. Last December, President Morsi himself survived a wild assault on his palace that was part of an attempted coup.

The Hesitant West

The West’s reaction to recent coups in Mali and in Egypt – which toppled democratically elected regimes – has been at best muddled. While the African Union labeled both incidents coups, both American and European leaders have been hesitant to do so. In Mali, the Obama administration’s response to the 2012 coup was mixed. Despite announcing a suspension of all US aid on March 26th, some US advisers remained in Mali. The Obama Administration announced on April 20th that three US servicemen who had been part of the US military assistance to Mali had perished in a car crash in Bamako.

In order to encourage international benevolence, coup leaders in both Egypt and Mali wrapped themselves in democratic language. In Mali, the coup organizers named themselves the “National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy and State (CNRDRE)” while in Egypt, a former member of the Mubarak government was quickly sworn in as president and elections were set for 6 months in the future. Yet, coups intended to establish democracy have little record of success in Africa. Where coups did achieve democratic reforms such as in Sudan in 1985 and Niger in 1999, the success proved short-lived. Thus, the West’s increasing toleration of “coups for democracy” as well as geopolitical concern over African security suggests that we are entering a new era of rule by Khaki and Camouflage-dressed men across the African continent.

Read more in this debate: Ragnar Weilandt, Abdullah Al-Arian, Mai Shams El-Din.

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