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):