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Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

I was surprised to read tweets posted by some experienced Pakistani TV talk-show hosts during the initial eruption of a coup attempt in Turkey last Saturday. They were convinced that the coup had been a success, when even a casual student of military putsches would have been able to detect the chaotic nature of the attempt.

But, of course, as we have often seen, not the most informed and insightful men and women usually occupy anchors’ seats on local news channels.

As a response to the failed coup, PTI chairman Imran Khan claimed that a military coup in Pakistan will be welcomed by the people, unlike the one in Turkey which was neutralised by large sections of the public.

According to him, Erdogan and Nawaz Sharif regimes are authoritarian. Indeed, Erdogan has become increasingly authoritarian, but the Sharif regime is anything but. It is nothing like the government headed by Erdogan.


Is Imran Khan correct in pointing out that a military coup against the Sharif regime will actually be greeted by applause?


Erdogan has managed to become what he has become (a perpetual civilian dictator) largely due to building a strong legacy for himself of being an economic miracle worker.

By winning multiple elections ever since 2002, he solidified his regime’s social contract with a large and diverse section of the Turkish electorate, which, in turn, helped him neutralise the tradition of political interference by Turkey’s armed forces.

While the economic successes and the building of a democratic bond with a wide spectrum of the Turkish society have been triumphs of civilian rule under Erdogan, it is these feats which have eventually created a personality cult around him and ironically turned him into an authoritarian figure.

These triumphs have alsocreated a powerful legacy around him which was expressed when thousands of Turks poured out on the streets to halt the coup attempt.

But is Imran correct to point out that a military coup (against the Sharif regime) in Pakistan will actually be greeted by applause?

Indeed, the armed forces are a popular institution in Pakistan. This popularity has actually skyrocketed during the tenure of army chief Gen Raheel — especially because of the way he plunged head-on against various militant and extremist groups who had otherwise operated with near-impunity before the general took over the reins of the military. He has also come across as an ‘incorruptible’ man of action with a capacity to outline and execute well thought-out plans.

However, this alone cannot guarantee a popular coup. First of all, things in this context have dramatically changed after the end of the Cold War in 1991. Western powers which used to regularly back coups in third world countries during the Cold War, do not do so because there is no opposing superpower to deal with anymore.

One of the most important factors which can generate a successful coup in the post-Cold War scenario is that coups now need widespread public support. But such support without the economic and political backing of developed countries is of little use.

Take the coup of Gen Sisi in Egypt. It was pulled off after thousands of Egyptians demonstrated against the elected government of Muhammad Morsi (of the Muslim Brotherhood party).

Yet, as John Espotiso pointed out in his 2016 book, Islam and Democracy After The Arab Spring, the coup was not welcomed by the either the US or European nations.

Espotiso mentions how crowds, which were celebrating Morsi’s fall, burned effigies and pictures of the American ambassador to Egypt, Anne Paterson. She had vehemently denounced the coup and was dubbed ‘Muslim Brotherhood’s lackey’ by Sisi’s supporters. Eventually, the rise of ISIS, helped Sisi finally gain the backing of the US. Had this backing not come, Sisi could not have survived.

In the notorious 1968 book, Coup D’etat: A Practical Handbook, political scientist, Edward N. Luttwak, wrote that a coup (even if successful) is bound to collapse if it fails to get the backing of developed countries. But today, such countries are in no mood (or condition) anymore to back military coups.

But coups just don’t happen. And the truth is, most of them fail. After studying a variety of coups in South America, Asia and Africa, Luttwak suggested that military coups are only successful in certain conditions.

He wrote that there has to be significant ‘economic backwardness’ in a country. This way the coup-makers can come in after promising to eradicate economic disparities and thus draw support from the large number of people kept away from the economic benefits of the few.

However, Luttwak added that on most occasions, such a coup is launched to stem a possible revolution from below and restore a more acceptable version of the status quo.

Luttwak stated that coups can never be successful if not backed by foreign allies which are also donor countries, funding the economies and the military of the country where the coup is taking place. He wrote that a coup without such backing will be a failure.

He then extends this by pointing out that much of the investment in economically backward countries also comes from large corporations owned by developed countries.

These corporations, apart from expanding their economic interests in the country, also invest in its infrastructure by building schools, hospitals, roads, etc. The opinion of such companies too needs to be taken into account by the coup-makers. If the corporations disagree with the ideas of the coup-makers, they might withdraw their operations from the country and leave it on the brink of an economic collapse.

No wonder then that both the Pakistani civilian and military leadership are trying to gain influence in matters of the China-backed multi-billion-dollar CPEC project.

Luttwak suggests that a coup is most likely successful in a third world country where there is ‘organic unity.’ By this he meant that a single ethnic and lingual group is in a majority. If such a country has multiple ethnic or tribal groups, then the coup-makers will have to identify with the most powerful group.

He warns however that coups undertaken by overpowering and then co-opting a dominant ethnic group will always lead to bitter opposition from other groups, thus threatening perpetual instability.

But in this supposed anti-coup era, why was a coup successful in Egypt and not in Turkey?

Luttwak wrote that coups are almost impossible in developed countries because a functional democratic system here manages to construct a complex but solid relationship (based on economic interests) between the people and the government/state.

Thus, a coup (or a revolution) in such conditions would be seen as a threat to the arrangement which is economically beneficial to a large number of people. The coup will thus be resisted.

Turkey has managed to develop such an arrangement, even though it is still a pale reflection of the one which exists in Europe and the United States. Egypt on the other hand never had any democracy. Its only experiment failed to even begin constructing the above-mentioned arrangement.

Instead, this arrangement in Egypt is still between military-backed civilian dictatorships and large sections of Egyptian society. Morsi was a threat to it. This threat was neutralised by Sisi’s coup which was why it was also largely popular.

What about Pakistan? Compared to most Muslim countries (except Turkey), Pakistan now has had one of the longest democratic traditions. So much so that over the last few decades, its two major parties, the PPP (in Sindh), and the PML-N (in the Punjab), have somewhat managed to create a strong arrangement in which the economic interests of large sections the electorate are identified with these two parties.

A coup here will have to overcome and then assimilate this arrangement, a task easier said than done. Also, China would want a fine balance between civilian rule and Pakistan’s powerful military; and in case of a coup (or any other form of turmoil), China just might pull the plug on its massive CPEC project in Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, July 24th, 2016