In his foreword to 1979’s revised edition of Edward Luttwak’s Coup d’Etat: A Practical Handbook, Walter Laqueur describes the work as “the brilliant and original book of a then very young man.” A clear factor in the immediate and wide attention paid to the book upon its original publication in 1967, Laqueur notes, was the paucity of previous work on coups d’etat, and Luttwak’s “shocking” assertion that they could be carried out with relative ease by small groups of men if they’d only mastered some “elementary lessons of modern politics.” While, as Laqueur explains, “whole libraries have been written on the objective conditions in which revolutions take place, about civil and peasant wars, about revolutionary and internal war, about guerrilla activities and terrorism,” the unpredictability of coups vexes political scientists as much as politicians. “But even if coups are unpredictable,” wrote Laqueur, “they contain certain ever recurring patterns—‘the same always different’—from the time the conspiracy is first hatched to the actual seizure of power.”
Ever since the Egyptian army seized power from Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, no observer can have missed the seemingly semantic debates over whether the move was accurately deemed a coup. While there are legislatorial reasons for the debate on word choice, with continued American financial support of the Egyptian army contingent on there being no coup, the use or rejection of the term carries obvious political freight as well.
Here Luttwak is particularly instructive. His “handbook” begins by setting out how the rise of the modern state—with its professional bureaucracy and standing armed forces—has enabled the coup d’etat by creating a clear distinction between the permanent machinery of the state and the political leadership, and by embedding power in a large organization with a structured hierarchy and definite chains of command. From there, he makes the obvious though important point that in a state with an established procedure for changing leadership, all methods other than that procedure “come within the range of illegality,” though our labels for them depend on the side we’re on.
The forms, as laid out by Luttwak (and with apologies for examples that show their age):
- Revolution: The action is conducted, initially at any rate, by uncoordinated popular masses, and it aims* at changing the social and political structures, as well as the actual personalities in the leadership.
The term has gained a certain popularity, and many coups are graced with it, because of the implication that it was “the people” rather than a few plotters who did the whole thing. Thus the obscure aims which Kassem had in mind when he overthrew the Faisal-Nuri-es-Said regime in Iraq are locally known as the “sacred principles of the July 14th Revolution.”
*In the initial stages no aims are conceptualized but the scope of the action may be clearly perceived.
- Civil War: Civil War is actual warfare between elements of the national armed forces leading to the displacement of a government.
This term is unfashionable and if you are Spanish and pro-Franco you call the events of 1936-9 “la cruzada”—the crusade. If you are not pro-Franco, but you may be overheard, you just call them “the events of…”
- Pronunciamiento: This is an essentially Spanish and South American version of the military coup d’etat, but many recent African coups have also taken this particular form. In its original nineteenth-century Spanish version this was a highly ritualized process: first came the trabajos (literally the “works”) in which the opinions of army officers were sounded. The next step was the compromisos, in which commitments were made and rewards promised; then came the call for action and, finally, the appeal to the troops to follow their officers in rebellion against the government.
The pronunciamiento was often a liberal rather than a reactionary phenomenon and the theoretical purpose of the take-over was to ascertain the “national will”—a typically liberal concept. Later, as the army became increasingly right-wing while Spanish governments became less so, the theory shifted from the neo-liberal “national will” to the neo-conservative “real will” theory. This postulates the existence of a national essence, a sort of permanent spiritual structure, which the wishes of the majority may not always express. The army was entrusted with the interpretation and preservation of this “essential Spain” and to protect it against the government and, if need be, against the people.*
The pronunciamiento was organized and led by a particular army leader, but it was carried out in the name of the entire officer corps; unlike the putsch, which is carried out by a faction within the army, or the coup, which can be carried out by civilians using some army units, the pronunciamiento leads to a take-over by the army as a whole. Many African take-overs in which the army has participated as a whole, were therefore very similar to the classic pronunciamiento.
*Various versions of this theory became popular in parts of the French Armed Forces during the 1950s and early 1960s.
- Putsch: Essentially a wartime or immediately post-war phenomenon, a putsch is attempted by a formal body within the armed forces under its appointed leadership. The Kornilov putsch is a clear example: Kornilov, a general in charge of an army group in north Russia, attempted to seize Leningrad, in order to establish a “fighting” regime which would prosecute the war. (Had he succeeded, the city would perhaps bear his name instead of Lenin’s.)
- Liberation: A state may be said (by supporters of the change) to be “liberated” when its government is overthrown by foreign military or diplomatic intervention. A classic case of this was the installation of the Communist leadership in Rumania in 1947. The USSR forced the then King Michael to accept a new Cabinet by threatening to use the Soviet army in the county in the event of a refusal.
- War of National Liberation, Insurgency etc.: In this form of internal conflict the aim of the initiating party is not to seize power within the state, but rather to set up a rival state structure. This can be politically or ethnically based.
The Viet Cong in South Vietnam aim at setting up a new social structure and, incidentally, a new state. The Kurds in Iraq, the Somalis in Kenya, the Karens in Burma and the Nagas in India want to withdraw their areas from the state concerned.
- The Definition of the Coup: A coup d’etat involves some elements of all these different methods by which power can be seized but, unlike most of them, the coup is not necessarily assisted by either the intervention of the masses, or, to any significant degree, by military-type force.
The assistance of these forms of direct force would no doubt make it easier to seize power, but it would be unrealistic to think that they would be available to the organizers of a coup. Because we will not be in charge of the armed forces we cannot hope to start the planning of a coup with sizeable military units already under our control, nor will the pre-coup government usually allow us to carry out the propaganda and organization necessary to make effective use of the “broad masses of the people.”
A second distinguishing feature of a coup is that it does not imply any particular political orientation. Revolutions are usually “leftist” while the putsch and the pronunciamiento are usually initiated by right-wing forces. A coup, however, is politically neutral, and there is no presumption that any particular policies will be followed after the seizure of power. It is true that many coups have been of a decidedly right-wing character but there is nothing inevitable about this.*
If a coup does not make use of the masses, or of warfare, what instrument of power will enable it to seize control of the state? The short answer is that the power will come from the state itself. The long answer makes up the bulk of this book. The following is our formal and functional definition:
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 Greek coup has reinforced this image of the “reactionary coup” but the Syrian coup of 1966, the Iraqi of 1958, the Yemeni of 1962 were all essentially leftist, if hardly liberal or progressive.
From there, Luttwak outlines the conditions in which a coup is possible, followed by chapters on strategy, planning, and execution. A practical handbook, indeed.