Coup d'état

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A coup d'état (/ˌkdˈtɑː/ (About this sound listen ); French: blow of state; plural: coups d'état), also known as a coup, a putsch, or an overthrow, is the sudden and illegal seizure of a government,[1][2][3] usually instigated by a small group of the existing state establishment to depose the established government and replace it with a new ruling body. A coup d'état is considered successful when the usurpers establish their dominance. When the coup either fails or doesn't entirely succeed, a civil war is a possible consequence.

A coup d'état typically uses the extant government's power to assume political control of the country. In Coup d'État: A Practical Handbook[page needed], military historian Edward Luttwak states that "[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." The armed forces, whether military or paramilitary, can be a defining factor of a coup d'état.


The phrase coup d'État (French pronunciation: ​[ku deta]) is French, literally meaning a "stroke of state" or in practice a "blow against the state". In French the word "État", denoting a sovereign political entity, is capitalized.[4]

Although the coup d'état has featured in politics since antiquity, the phrase is of relatively recent coinage;[5] the Oxford English Dictionary identifies it as a French expression meaning a "stroke of State". The phrase did not appear within an English text, before the nineteenth century, except when used in the translation of a French source, there being no simple phrase in English to convey the contextualized idea of a "knockout blow to the existing administration within a state". One early example of the use of the phrase within text translated from French, is in 1785, in a printed translation of a letter from a French merchant, commenting on an arbitrary decree or 'arret' issued by the French King, restricting the import of British woollen cloth.[6] What may be its first published use within a text composed in English, is in an editor's note in the London Morning Chronicle, 7 January 1802, reporting the arrest by Napoleon in France, of Moreau, Berthier, Massena, and Bernadotte:

There was a report in circulation yesterday of a sort of coup d'état having taken place in France, in consequence of some formidable conspiracy against the existing government.

In post-Revolutionary France, the phrase came to be used to describe the various murders by Napoleon's hated secret police, the Gens d'Armes d'Elite, who murdered the Duke of Enghien:

… the actors in torture, the distributors of the poisoning draughts, and the secret executioners of those unfortunate individuals or families, whom Bonaparte’s measures of safety require to remove. In what revolutionary tyrants call grand[s] coups d'état, as butchering, or poisoning, or drowning, en masse, they are exclusively employed.[7]

Since an unsuccessful coup d'état in 1920 (the Kapp Putsch), the Swiss German word Putsch (pronounced [pʊtʃ]; coined for the Züriputsch of 1839) also denotes the same politico-military actions[citation needed].

Usage of the phrase[edit]

Politically, a coup d'état is a usually violent method of political engineering,[citation needed] which affects who rules in the government, without radical changes in the form of the government, the political system. Tactically, a coup d'état involves control, by an active minority of usurpers, who block the remaining (non-participant) defenders of the state's possible defence of the attacked government, by either capturing or expelling the politico-military leaders, and seizing physical control of the country's key government offices, communications media, and infrastructure. It is to be noted that in the latest years there has been a broad use of the phrase in mass media, which may contradict the legal definition of "coup d'état". In looser usage (as in intelligence coup, boardroom coup) the term simply refers to gaining a sudden advantage on a rival.


Main article: Pronunciamiento

Pronunciamiento (pronouncement) is a term of Spanish and Latin American origin for a special type of coup d'état. The coup d'état (called golpe de Estado in Spanish) was more common in Spain and South America, while the pronunciamiento was more common in Central America. The pronunciamiento is the formal explanation for deposing the regnant government, justifying the installation of the new government that was effected with the golpe de Estado. The difference between a coup and a pronunciamento is that in the former a military, paramilitary or opposing political faction deposes the current government and assumes power; in the pronunciamiento the military deposes the existing government and installs an (ostensibly) civilian government.[8]


Historically speaking, variations of coup d'état have been among the most common forms of governmental transition in human societies. In the modern day, coups d'état are common in Africa; between 1952 and 2000, thirty-three countries experienced 85 such depositions. Western Africa had most of them, 42; most were against civil regimes; 27 were against military regimes; and only in five were the deposed incumbents killed.[9] Moreover, as a change-of-government method, the incidence of the coup d'état has declined worldwide.


The political scientist Samuel P. Huntington[citation needed] identifies three classes of coup d'état:

A coup d'état is typed according to the military rank of the lead usurper.

  • The veto coup d'état and the guardian coup d'état are affected by the army's commanding officers.
  • The breakthrough coup d'état is effected by junior officers (colonels or lower rank) or non-commissioned officers (sergeants). When junior officers or enlisted men so seize power, the coup d'état is a mutiny with grave implications for the organizational and professional integrity of the military.
  • In a bloodless coup d'état, the threat of violence suffices to depose the incumbent. In 1889, Brazil became a republic via bloodless coup; in 1999, Pervez Musharraf assumed power in Pakistan via a bloodless coup; and, in 2006, Sonthi Boonyaratglin assumed power in Thailand as the leader of the Council for Democratic Reform under Constitutional Monarchy.

The self-coup denotes an incumbent government – aided and abetted by the military – assuming extra-constitutional powers. A historical example is President, then Emperor, Louis Napoléon Bonaparte. Modern examples include Alberto Fujimori, in Peru, who, although elected, temporarily suspended the legislature and the judiciary in 1992, becoming an authoritarian ruler, and King Gyanendra's assumption of "emergency powers" in Nepal. Another form of self-coup is when a government, having been defeated in an election, refuses to step down.

Resistance to coups d'état[edit]

Many coups d'état, even if initially successful in seizing the main centres of state power, are actively opposed by certain segments of society or by the international community. Opposition can take many different forms, including an attempted counter-coup by sections of the armed forces, international isolation of the new regime, and military intervention.

Sometimes opposition takes the form of civil resistance, in which the coup is met with mass demonstrations from the population generally, and disobedience among civil servants and members of the armed forces. Cases in which civil resistance played a significant part in defeating armed coups d'état include: the Kornilov Putsch in Russia in August 1917; the Kapp Putsch in Berlin in March 1920; and the Generals' Revolt in Algiers in April 1961.[10] The coup in the Soviet Union on 19–21 August 1991 is another case in which civil resistance was part of an effective opposition to a coup: Boris Yeltsin, President of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, stood on top of a tank in the centre of Moscow and urged people to refuse co-operation with the coup.

Governments following military coups[edit]

After the coup d'état, the military faces the matter of what 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 armed forces. A common form of African post-coup government is the revolutionary assembly, a quasi-legislative body elected by the army. In Pakistan, the military leader typically assumes the title of chief martial law administrator.

According to Huntington, most leaders of a coup d'état act under the concept of right orders: they believe that the best resolution of the country's problems is merely to issue correct orders. This view of government underestimates the difficulty of implementing government policy, and the degree of political resistance to certain correct orders. It presupposes that everyone who matters in the country shares a single, common interest, and that the only question is how to pursue that single, common interest.

Current leaders who assumed power via coups d'état[edit]

Title Name Assumed power Replaced Country Coup d'état
Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said[11]1 23 July 1970 Said bin Taimur  Oman 1970 Omani coup d'état
President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo 3 August 1979 Francisco Macías Nguema  Equatorial Guinea 1979 Equatoguinean coup d'état
President Yoweri Museveni 29 January 1986 Tito Okello  Uganda Ugandan Bush War
President Omar al-Bashir 30 June 1989 Sadiq al-Mahdi  Sudan 1989 Sudanese coup d'état
President Idriss Déby 2 December 1990 Hissène Habré  Chad 1990 Chadian revolution
President Isaias Afwerki 27 April 19912 Mengistu Haile Mariam  Eritrea Eritrean War for Independence
President Yahya Jammeh[12]3 22 July 1994 Dawda Jawara  The Gambia 1994 Gambian coup d'état
Prime Minister Hun Sen August 1997 Norodom Ranariddh  Cambodia 1997 Cambodian coup d'état
President Denis Sassou Nguesso 25 October 1997 Pascal Lissouba  Republic of the Congo Republic of the Congo Civil War
Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama 5 December 2006 Laisenia Qarase  Fiji 2006 Fijian coup d'état
President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz4 6 August 2008 Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi  Mauritania 2008 Mauritanian coup d'état
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha 22 May 2014 Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisan5  Thailand 2014 Thai coup d'état

1Monarch who overthrew his father in a bloodless palace coup.
2As head of Provisional Government of Eritrea. Eritrea declared independence 24 May 1993.
3Subsequently confirmed in office by an apparently free and fair election.
4Subsequently confirmed by a narrow margin in the Mauritanian presidential election, 2009, which was regarded as "satisfactory" by international observers.
5Acting Prime Minister at that time.

Other uses of the term[edit]

The term has also been used in a corporate context more specifically as boardroom coup. CEOs that have been sacked by behind-the-scenes maneuvering include Robert Stempel of General Motors[13][14] and John Akers of IBM, in 1992 and 1993, respectively.[15][16]

Steve Jobs attempted management coups twice at Apple Inc.; first in 1985 when he unsuccessfully tried to oust John Sculley and then again in 1997, which successfully forced Gil Amelio to resign.[17][18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ International Academy of Comparative Law; American Association for the Comparative Study of Law (1970). Legal thought in the United States of America under contemporary pressures: Reports from the United States of America on topics of major concern as established for the VIII Congress of the International Academy of Comparative Law. Émile Bruylant. p. 509. But even if the most laudatory of motivations be assumed, the fact remains that the coup d'état is a deliberately illegal act of the gravest kind and strikes at the highest level of law and order in society ... 
  2. ^ Luttwak, Edward (1 January 1979). Coup D'etat: A Practical Handbook. Harvard University Press. p. 172. ISBN 978-0-674-17547-1. Clearly the coup is by definition illegal 
  3. ^ "A Glossary of Political Economy Terms" Coup d'etat". Auburn University. Retrieved 23 November 2014. A quick and decisive extra-legal seizure of governmental power by a relatively small but highly organized group of political or military leaders ... 
  4. ^ "Banque de dépannage linguistique – état". Office québécois de la langue française. Retrieved 2012-12-12. 
  5. ^ Julius Caesar's civil war, 5 January 49 BC.
  6. ^ Norfolk Chronicle. 13 August 1785. It is thought here by some, that it is a Coup d'Etat played off as a prelude to a disagreeable after-piece. But I can confidently assure you, that the above-mentioned arret was promulgated in consequence of innumerable complaints and murmurs which have found their way to the ears of the Sovereign. Our merchants contend, that they experience the greatest difficulties in trading with the English. 
  7. ^ Kentish Gazette (Canterbury). 16 October 1804. p. 2. 
  8. ^ Luttwak, Edward (1979). Coup d'État: A Practical Handbook. Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-17547-6. 
  9. ^ Kieh, George Klay, Jr.; Agbese, Pita Ogaba, eds. (2004). The Military and Politics in Africa. Ashgate Publishing. pp. 44–5. ISBN 0-7546-1876-5. 
  10. ^ Roberts, Adam (1975). "Civil Resistance to Military Coups". Journal of Peace Research 12 (1): 19–36. doi:10.1177/002234337501200102. JSTOR 422898. 
  11. ^ Allen, Calvin H.; Rigsbee, W. Lynn (2000). Oman Under Qaboos: From Coup to Constitution, 1970–1996. Frank Cass Publishers. 
  12. ^ "The Gambia". Retrieved 27 July 2012. 
  13. ^ Bunkley, Nick (10 May 2011). "Robert C. Stempel Is Dead at 77; Led G.M. During a Troubled Period". The New York Times. 
  14. ^ Miller, Stephen (11 May 2011). "Engineer Ran GM in Dark Early '90s". The Wall Street Journal. 
  15. ^ Black, Larry (27 January 1993). "IBM fires Akers and slashes dividend". The Independent (London). 
  16. ^ Maria Pikalova (4 May 2007). "How IBM Board Member Jim Burke Persuaded Gerstern to Put His Career At Stake". Good2Work. Retrieved 23 November 2014. 
  17. ^ Seibold, Chris (24 May 2011). "May 24, 1985: Jobs Fails to Oust Sculley". Apple Matters. Retrieved 8 October 2011. 
  18. ^ "Apple Formally Names Jobs as Interim Chief". The New York Times. Associated Press. 17 September 1997. Retrieved 27 June 2011. 


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