Once considered relics of the 20th century, military coups have captured global headlines this past year. The recent wave of coups – removing governments in Myanmar, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Sudan, and elsewhere – have garnered widespread attention by policy-makers, academics, and political leaders alike. Observers have been especially quick to call on the international community to respond to the power-grabs. International actors, the argument goes, can leverage different resources like sanctions, membership suspensions, and embargoes to push coup leaders to cede political power and reinstate civilian rule.
For example, Frances Z. Brown and Thomas Carothers recently advocated on these pages for the United States to develop a global anti-coup strategy. Like similar commentaries, the authors list a compelling and exhaustive list of standards that the United States and international community more broadly should follow in the wake of military coups. These standards include explicitly naming and shaming coups as coups, advocating for a strict adherence to a transitional timeline, and collaborating with other international actors to pressure coup participants to step aside.
While all these standards are vital for a robust anti-coup strategy, the international community also needs to move beyond a focus on the military officers who take political power. In particular, anti-coup strategies should take steps to deal with the civilian allies, supporters, and instigators of military coups. This requires foregoing a one-size-fits-all approach and better understanding the political context where coups have occurred.
Civilians in Military Coups: More Common Than We Think
Although military coups invoke images of soldiers and tanks, these events often occur with the support and involvement of civilian constituencies. Despite this reality, civilian collaborators rarely receive the same level of focus and backlash as military coup leaders. Instead, there is a tendency to use different forms of civilian support as indicators of a “popular” coup – such as mass protests demanding military intervention. For example, protests demanding military intervention against then-President Mohamed Morsi preceded Egypt’s 2013 coup, contributing to a debate over whether the event constituted a military takeover at all, given its alleged popularity. Nearly a decade later, we know the answer to be a resounding yes.
In their article, Brown and Carothers rightfully call on the United States to give less weight to claims of coup popularity. But addressing civilian collaboration requires the recognition that civilians can play several different roles beyond just participating or rallying pro-coup protests. For example, research on Egypt’s 2013 crisis shows that civilian businesspeople and opposition party leaders coordinated with the military before the coup and used a host of financial resources to fund support for the takeover. Some evidence suggests that oligarchs – once benefactors of Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian government – used their resources and media enterprises to rally support for the military’s intervention while also funding the Tamarod (or “rebellion”) popular protest movement. Civilian collaboration can also manifest in the post-coup context after the dust settles. For instance, coup leaders may formally withdraw from politics while still wielding their ties to civilian affiliates to influence the political system, thereby sidestepping any meaningful consequences for their actions. In other cases, civilian affiliates enable coup leaders to not only neutralize domestic opposition to the coup but to also appease the international community’s demand for a civilian government. For example, after Egypt’s coup, the transitional government saw several opposition leaders like Mohammed ElBaradei involved – lending the military government short-term credibility – but this token opposition involvement was short-lived as the military government consolidated power.
Understanding the various roles of civilians in illegal power-grabs and similar actions is also relevant to democratic backsliding in the United States, including attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election and the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Although there has been much debate on whether the attack constituted a traditional coup, it should be noted that then-President Donald Trump and his allies allegedly considered using the military to overturn the 2020 election results, and the Trump White House reviewed a draft executive order that would have facilitated this military involvement. In short, civilians are not the uniformly pro-democratic figures many observers and policymakers may believe them to be.
Here’s Why It Matters: Sudan’s Political Crisis
These concerns are not negligible or merely theoretical. The involvement of civilians can significantly complicate and hinder efforts to reinstate the rule of law after a coup. This can be seen in Sudan, where the issue of civilian collaboration has been present throughout the current political crisis. Following the fall of President Omar al-Bashir in the face of mass protests in 2019, a civilian-military government was formed to navigate the country’s transition to democracy. However, in October 2021, the military ousted the transitional government of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok only days after a faction of former rebel leaders organized protests demanding a coup. In the face of widespread civilian opposition, Sudan’s coup leaders have since relied on a constellation of civilian members from al-Bashir’s regime – including figures from the former ruling National Congress Party NCP) and their affiliates – to shore up their government.
The coup regime’s allies have also been important in the face of the international community’s attempts to mediate talks between “civilians” and the military, namely the Tripartite talks. These talks – backed by the United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS), the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and the African Union (AU) – allegedly aimed to build a new civilian-led transitional government. Although international actors originally presented and supported the Tripartite mechanism (TPM) as a solution to Sudan’s political stalemate, observers and pro-democracy groups denounced the process as a sham, especially after the talks saw only the military and its allies (e.g., former NCP members, Popular Congress, Unity Party, former rebel leaders like Minister of Finance Jibril Ibrahim) present. Although coup leader General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan recently announced that Sudan’s army would be exiting the political process, pro-democracy groups noted that the military’s civilian allies like former NCP members would remain present and continue to represent the military’s interests . The Tripartite dialogue was halted by UNITAMS on July 6, after the withdrawal of the military; international mediators have since called for reconciliation between the pro-democracy groups and the civilian forces that supported and legitimized last October’s coup.
With the use of their civilian collaborators, the military’s leadership grows more capable of protecting its interests and grip on the country – even if military leadership formally exits politics. Its collaborators can still block meaningful security sector reform, pursue aggressive policies favoring the military, and neutralize anti-military opposition. While international actors may be genuinely seeking to promote a civilian-led government in Sudan after last year’s coup disrupted the country’s democratic transition, if they hope to succeed, their efforts must focus on meaningfully addressing the concerns of pro-democracy civilians who share this goal, not just on reinstating nominally civilian rule.
So What Can The International Community Do?
To better deal with civilian allies of military coups, the international community should indeed place less weight on supposed signals of coup popularity but also move beyond the blanket demand for a “civilian” government or transition. This means better appreciating the distinctions between actual pro-democracy civilian factions and those that are linked to the military. A civilian government handpicked by the military might appease the international community’s demands but does little to improve a country’s democratic prospects. In practice, a robust anti-coup strategy should also place the same pressures on civilian collaborators that military coup leaders face. Ultimately, military extrication from politics is a necessary requirement for democracy. But ignoring the different ways coup leaders seize and retain political influence – including through actors not wearing fatigues – undermines the goal of protecting or restoring democracy.