To understand the swift and dramatic demise of Egypt’s first democratically elected leader and what it might portend for the country’s future, it helps to take a broad comparative perspective. The manner in which the country’s military deposed President Mohamed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood–affiliated Freedom and Justice Party, is by no means an isolated case. In fact, it fits rather perfectly within the model of a civil society coup, a concept I first described in a 2002 World Policy Journal essay that explained the brief removal from power of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez by a coalition of business, labor, and civic groups. Other scholars have subsequently applied the idea to other coups, such as those in the Philippines in 2001, in Ecuador in 2002, in Thailand in 2006, and in Honduras in 2009. All of these cases show that civil society coups are not the fix for democracy that they purport to be, which looks to be true in Egypt as well.
Endemic to new democracies, civil society coups entail the removal from power of an elected leader through sustained protest, usually with the aid of the military. Indeed, it is the partnership between civil society and the military -- not usually known for acting in concert -- that distinguishes a civil society coup from an ordinary one. More often than not, those behind the coup justify it by claiming that they intend to rescue democracy, which is paradoxical since they are, in fact, uprooting it. This is Tocqueville’s civil society gone rogue; rather than working patiently and discreetly toward improving the quality of democracy, it turns angry and restless and plots for sudden and radical political change.
In my original essay on Chávez’s removal from office, I identified three preconditions for a civil society coup. The first is the rise to power of a leader whose commitment to democracy is at best suspect. The second is a political apparatus that fails to meet public expectations about economic growth and