What Is a Coup d’Etat? Definition and Examples

People wave Turkish national flags as they stand at the Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul on July 15, 2019. - Turkey commemorates, on July 15, 2019 the third anniversary of a coup attempt which was followed by a series of purges in the public sector and changes to boost Turkish President's powers.
Turkish people celebrate the third anniversary a 2016 coup attempt. Ozan Kose / Getty Images

A coup d'etat is the sudden, often violent overthrow of an existing government by a small group. The coup d'etat, also known as coup, is typically an illegal, unconstitutional seizure of power conducted by a dictator, a guerrilla military force, or an opposing political faction. 

Key Takeaways: Coup d'Etat

  • A coup d'etat is the illegal, often violent overthrow of an existing government or leader by a small group.
  • Coups d'etat are typically conducted by aspiring dictators, military forces, or opposing political factions.
  • Unlike revolutions, coups d'etat usually seek only to replace key government personnel rather than forcing sweeping changes to the country’s fundamental social and political ideology.

Coup d’Etat Definition

In his dataset of coups, University of Kentucky political scientist Clayton Thyne defines coups d’etat as “illegal and overt attempts by the military or other elites within the state apparatus to unseat the sitting executive.”

As a key to success, groups attempting coups typically seek to gain the support of all or parts of the country’s armed forces, the police, and other military elements. Unlike revolutions, which are undertaken by large groups of people seeking sweeping social, economic, and political change, including the form of government itself, a coup seeks only to replace key government personnel. Coups rarely change a country’s fundamental social and political ideology, such as replacing a monarchy with a democracy.

In one of the first modern coups, Napoleon Bonaparte overthrew the ruling French Committee of Public Safety and replaced it with the French Consulate on November 9, 1799, in the bloodless Coup of 18-19 Brumaire. More violent coups were common in Latin American nations during the 19th century and in Africa during the 1950s and 1960s as the nations gained independence

Types of Coups d’Etat

As described by political scientist Samuel P. Huntington in his 1968 book Political Order in Changing Societies, there are three generally recognized types of coups:

  • The breakthrough coup: In this most-common type of takeover, an opposing group of civilian or military organizers overthrows the seated government and installs themselves as the nation’s new leaders. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, in which Russian Communists led by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin overthrew the tsarist regime, is an example of a breakthrough coup.
  • The guardian coup: Typically justified as being for the “broader good of the nation,” the guardian coup occurs when one elite group seizes power from another elite group. For example, an army general overthrows a king or president. Some consider the 2013 overthrow of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as part of the Arab Spring to have been a guardian coup.
  • The veto coup: In a veto coup, the military steps in to prevent radical political change. The failed 2016 coup conducted by a faction of the Turkish military in an attempt to prevent what it considered Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s assault on secularism could be considered a veto coup.

    Recent Examples of Coups d’Etat

    While they have been recorded since about 876 BCE, significant coups d’etat continue to take place today. Here are four recent examples:

    2011 Egyptian Coup d’Etat

    Egypt - Uprising in Cairo
    On Feburary 11, 2011, 30-year Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned, launching the country into an era of reform. Monique Jaques / Getty Images

    Beginning on January 25, 2011, millions of civilians staged demonstrations demanding the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The protestors’ grievances included police brutality, denial of political and civil liberty, high unemployment, food-price inflation, and low wages. Mubarak resigned on February 11, 2011, with power handed over to a military junta, headed by the effective head of state Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. At least 846 people were killed and over 6,000 injured in violent confrontations between protesters and Mubarak’s personal security forces.

    2013 Egyptian Coup d’Etat

    The next Egyptian coup d'etat took place on July 3, 2013. A military coalition led by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi removed recently-elected President Mohamed Morsi from power and suspended the Egyptian constitution adopted after the 2011 coup. After Morsi and leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood were arrested, violent confrontations between Morsi’s supporters and opponents spread across Egypt. On August 14, 2013, police and military forces massacred hundreds of pro-Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood protestors. Human Rights Watch documented 817 deaths, “one of the world's largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history.” As a result of the coup and ensuing violence, Egypt’s membership in the African Union was suspended.

    2016 Turkish Coup d’Etat Attempt

    Turkey military coup
    People shout, gestures and hold Turkish national flags as they gather in Taksim square in Istanbul, on July 18, 2016 following the military failed coup attempt of July 15.  DANIEL MIHAILESCU / Getty Images

    On July 15, 2016, the Turkish military attempted a coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Islamic secular government. Organized as the Peace at Home Council, the military faction was defeated by forces loyal to Erdoğan. As reasons for the attempted coup, the Council cited an erosion of strict Islamic secularism under Erdoğan, along with his elimination of democracy and human rights violations related to his oppression of the ethnic Kurdish population. Over 300 people were killed during the failed coup. In retaliation, Erdoğan ordered the arrests of an estimated 77,000 people.

    2019 Sudanese Coup d’Etat

    Sudan coup
    Sudanese supporters of the ruling Transitional Military Council (TMC) hold up a sign showing a portrait of its head General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan with a caption below reading in Arabic "Al-Burhan, upon you is the trust", during a rally in the centre of the capital Khartoum on May 31, 2019.  ASHRAF SHAZLY / Getty Images

    On April 11, 2019, iron-fisted Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir was removed from power by a faction of the Sudanese military after nearly 30 years in office. After al-Bashir's arrest, the country's constitution was suspended and the government was dissolved. On April 12, 2019, the day after al-Bashir’s overthrow, Lieutenant-General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan was sworn in as chairman of Sudan's ruling Transitional Military Council and official head of state.

    Sources and Further Reference