Democratic Coup In Eritrea: Unrealistic Utopian Project

When you undertake a revolution, the difficulty is not to make it go; it is to hold it in check.


In October 5, 2008, I called on the Eritrean Defense Force (EDF) to avoid the war and defend the rights of our people. In that article, I clearly stated without any doubt, “I love my people more than my country”. And further I said, people who can’t defend themselves from their tormentor cannot defend their country [1]. That has always been my principle.

This brings me to the recent article written by Saleh Younis, the prolific Eritrean writer who called for a “democratic coup” in an article entitled, “Why Democratic Coup is the best option in Eritrea” [2]. I am sure when the word “democratic” is compounded with the word “coup,” many of his readers sensed it as a positive prescription to our current political malaise. In essence his call makes sense, but from practical point of view, it isn’t feasible in our reality. I will give my reasons based on the following reality, (a) the nature of the army we have, and, (b) the absence of other factors that should be conducive for democratic coup. I would also like to remind my readers that the concept of “democratic coup” is still controversial even within the highly scholastic institutions.

Before I make my argument as to why it is not feasible in Eritrea, I will give a background as to how the term “democratic coup” came into existence, when and who coined it, and how this new conceptual phenomenon is challenging the academic legal framing literature, which says all military coups are anti-democratic reaction by power-hungry military personnel. Besides, I will try to bring the argument from both sides of the scholastic minds to have a good understanding before we see its feasibility in the Eritrean reality. In doing that we will visit the work of the scholar who coined the concept “democratic coup” and how his peers in academia reacted, positively and negatively, about whether a coup could bring structural regime change.

What is A Democratic Coup?

Can a coup advance democracy? Ozan O. Varol, a professor at Lewis & Clark Law School argues yes it can. His 2012 essay for the Harvard International Law Journal, accentuated his argument against the conventional framework that considers all military coups anti-democratic, and came up with a unique approach to challenge the conventional argument. He argued that, while the vast majority of military coups are undemocratic in nature, and leads to less democratic political regimes, there are significant examples of democratic coup that promote democratic process [3]. To challenge the conventional intellectual framework and its underlying assumptions, professor Varol offered a unique proposal. He said, despite the fact that all coups have anti-democratic features some are distinctly more democracy-promoting than others, and itemized the characteristics that distinguish the democratic coups from the undemocratic ones. Therefore, in order for a military coup to be democratic, Varol laid down the following Pre-conditional requirements:

  • The military coup is staged against the authoritarian or totalitarian regime.
  • The military coup responds to popular opposition against the authoritarian or totalitarian regime.
  • The authoritarian or totalitarian leaders refuse to step down in response to the popular opposition.
  • The coup is staged by a military that is highly respected within the nation.
  • The military executes the coup to overthrow the authoritarian or totalitarian regime.
  • The coup facilitates fair and free election within short span of time.
  • The coup ends with the transfer of power to democratically elected leaders [4]. [Keep in mind we will check these requirements to our realities].

Furthermore, to validate his argument, Varol conducted a fieldwork in Egypt and Turkey in 2011 and made comparative studies (a) the 1960 military coup in Turkey (b) the 1974 military coup of Portugal (c) The 2011 military coup of Egypt [5]. Varol to his credit didn’t shy away from admitting and acknowledging that the “democratic coup is the exception not the norm”. But let us navigate through the history of the coups of the three exemplary countries Varol used as comparative studies for his intellectual and academic arguments. Here are three short historical references as a recap to understand the natures of the coups he used as cases of his studies. Those who are interested can visit his work in detail.

[A] The 1974 Military Coup of Portugal

The “Carnation Revolution” which is also referred as the military coup in Portugal of April 25, 1974, is the coup that overthrew the regime of Estado Novo. The revolution started as a military coup by Armed Forces Movement composed of military officers and supported by popular civil resistances that brought the fall of Esado Novo and the withdrawal of Portugal from its African colonies and Timor. The coup was incited when career army officers became alienated by a government measure in 1973 and by the publication of the book titled “Portugal and the future” in 1974. The coup brought the final dissolution of the Portuguese empire, a new constitution was drafted, censorship prohibited, free speech declared, and political prisoners released. The Portuguese military successfully entrenched itself in the constitution after overthrowing the dictatorship of President Marcello Caetano in 1974. It took them six years to create a clause that allows 2/3 majority of the parliament to dislodge the “military entrenchment”.

[B] The 1960 Military Coup of Turkey

On May 27, 1960 a group of military officers outside of the chain of command, led by Alparslan Turkes staged a coup against the democratically elected government of President Celal Bayer of the Democratic Party. The junta purged more than 500 judges and public prosecutors, 1400 University faculty members, and forced 235 Generals and 3000 commissioned officers to retirement (courtesy Wikipedia). Simultaneously they appointed General Cemal Gursel as provincial head of state, prime minister, and defense minister. They formed military tribunals and charged the politicians with high treason and executed the prime minister, the Foreign minister, and the finance minister. The coup leaders had entrenched in the government until the first free election held in 1965. Since 1960, Turkey had suffered from multiple coups, 1971, 1980, and 1997.

[C] The 2011 Military Coup of Egypt

The Egyptian Armed forces staged a coup in Feb. 11, 2011 in support of the mass resistance and protests against the authoritarian regime of President Hosni Mubarak. The protesters were from all facets and social strata of Egyptian society. The military seized power and assumed control of the government by force after Mubarak refused to step down in response to the popular opposition. In less than two years they facilitated a democratic election, a significant turning point in the history of Egyptian politics.

Morsi became the first democratically elected President on June 2012 presidential election. As a president, he assumed unlimited power for himself, the power to legislate without the judicial oversight. He issued an Islamist backed draft constitution and called for referendum, an act rejected by the opposition. As a result protests erupted across Egypt calling for the President’s resignation. On July 3, 2013 General Sisi staged a coup, suspended the constitution and formed an interim government composed of technocrats led by the chief of justice, Adly Mansour (President) and Hazim El-bablawi (prime minister). He banned Morsi’s party – the Muslim brothers before the formal election that brought him to the Presidency in May 2014. General Sisi ended the brief democratic experiment under the leadership of Morsi and caused the civil societies to be ruptured. No one knows for how long this military entrenchment will continue; at least for now it appears the continuation of the traditional Egyptian military rule, since Gemal Abdel Nasser.

Democratic Coup: Institutional Entrenchment

David Austin-Smith and Jeffery S. Banks argued that, even though democratic coup ends in free and fair elections, the military behaves as self-interested actor during the democratic transition process and ‘entrenches or attempts to entrenchments policy preferences’ in to the new constitution drafted during the transition process [5 ].

According Varol, constitutional entrenchments occur in three modes (a) Procedural mode (b) Substantive mode (c) Institutional mode. In the procedural mode, the military sets up the democratic transition process so that the process produces a substantive constitutional outcome favorable to the military. In the substantive mode, the military reserves substantive power for itself under the new constitution. In the institutional mode, the military establish counter majoritarian institutions [6]. Hence forth, the military coup will obviously entrench in the democratic constitutional process to seek a perpetual military voice in the nation’s political affairs beyond the end of the democratic transitional period as we have seen in the military coup of Turkey and Egypt.

In the three modes, we have seen the military enhance its entrenchment by making the constitution favorable to it, reserving substantive power to itself, and denying the establishment of majoritarian institutions. Therefore in my view a military democratic coup doesn’t look democratic in essence, and it appears to be contradictory to the conceptual name coined for it.

In light of this contradictory nature of Varol’s argument, Richard Albert rejected the notion of democratic coup. He said, by definition a coup cannot be democratic [7]. Albert frustrated by the procedural, amoral, and mechanical inquiry of revolutions, challenged the conventional theory of revolutions which states – a revolution is an episode that occur suddenly with violence on the strength of popular movement. He further argued Conventional revolutionary theory doesn’t invite judgments about the merits of Revolutions. As a result he made a scholastic move to repair the democratic foundation of a revolutionary theory and tried to bring structural principle to help and distinguish between virtuous and vicious revolutions (a subject for another time). In line with Albert, Andrew C. Jones also rejected the concept of democratic coup, and he defined Coup d’état as the reversal to the process of a revolution [8].

Basically, scholars still lack basic understanding of how coups might have a negative impact on constitutional process, democratic transitions, and democratic process. The primary purpose of a military is to protect the state from external threats [Peter Feaver, 1999] and should be neutral by avoiding interference in the political process. To date academicians has primarily centered on defining a coup in terms of its targets, perpetrators, tactics, and success or failure [9].

Military Leaders Are Self-interested Practitioners

All military coups are not staged to thwart suppression by authoritarian or totalitarian regimes. In fact they are staged on self-interest motives. Since all politicians are self-interested in nature, likewise military leaders are self-interested practitioners. We have seen it in the so called “democratic coup” of Turkey and Egypt, that the military have promoted economic and social privileges for themselves by constitutional entrenchment.

To elaborate the economic privileges of self-interested leaders, Robert Barro developed an economic model for officeholders. He did elaborate that the public officeholder’s actions is to advance their own interest not their constituents’. Likewise coup leaders can’t have motives other than advancing their own interests. In democratic politics there are mechanisms to mitigate self-interested behaviors. For instance, you could sanction politicians by voting them out in elections. Contrary to the democratic politics, in a military coup (a) there are no meaningful mechanisms to monitor the conduct of military coup leaders (b) There are no bargaining conditions between the people and the coup leaders (c) There are no decibel meters enable them to get feedback from the public about their bureaucratic performance in the so called transition (d) They always resort to force or threat of force to quite public voices or protesters’ grievances (e) they often seek re-election at the end of the transition as we saw with General Sisi of Egypt (f) Virtually it is impossible to impose sanctions to military coup leaders after they transitioned power to elected leaders, for any criminal act they have done during the transitions. In most cases they bargain for immunity before they transition the power.

Upon seizing power, the military ordinarily disbands the parliament, annuls the constitution, and suspend judicial reviews, providing itself a virtual monopoly on coercive power [10]. By virtually monopolizing power, the military maximizes its self-interest motives. The military can let a different branch of government protect its interests and avoid accountability [11].

So far, in a nutshell, we have seen how democratic coup is defined by the author of democratic coup, and the countries he used as exemplary to explain his theory. We also saw military coup leaders like regular politicians are self-interested actors, who do not take time to entrench in the constitutional process and the political democratic process, by exploiting the popular movements as we have seen in Turkey and Egypt – which was the sole bases of research of the author of the democratic coup.

Now let us assume the “democratic coup theory” (though unsettled within the constitutional academia) is applicable and acceptable as Varol intelligently presented it. The question will be then, what is the possibility in the Eritrea? Do we have the criteria that Varol had in mind, for democratic coups to emerge from the political reality of our nation?

Hence, to make a reality check, I will try to visit and explore the state of Eritrea, the government of Eritrea, and the nature of the Eritrean Defense force (EDF). Once we have a clear understanding of those institutional structures, we will check if there is any ground and possibility for a coup to happen. And if there are what kind of coup could that be? Will it be the “conventional coup” like all the African countries or a “democratic coup.”?

Eritrea: The State And The Government

In normal functioning states, there are three distinct virtual spheres that define collectively the structure of a state. They are (a) the government (b) the civic societies (c) the private sector. If a state doesn’t have these three elements of a state, it is not a normal state. The three spheres function as semi-autonomous, each of which check each other in the way they do their business and the business of the nation.

In the current state of Eritrea there are no civic societies and private sectors. There is only the government. The Government is the state. Both the state and the government are interchangeable as they stand for the purpose of self-serving for one thing – the ruling party (PFDJ). In other words, the party is the governing body and the image of the state – doing the work of the government and the business of the private sector, what we call state entrepreneur, by barring the existence of civic societies. The two sectors (civic society and private sectors) are the indicators of a healthy economy. While civic societies focus on social services and civic education, the private sectors focuses on free market to revolutionize the national entrepreneurship. The engagement of civic societies with the state can be viewed as part of a political pluralism; this implies tolerance and accommodation of diverse views, interests, and demands in the public sphere [12].

The state’s ideology and the party’s ideology is the same (like in all single party governing nations). The government’s institutions are built for to serve the party. In other words, the institutions work for the self-interested party members including the military institutions. In Eritrea there is a system with institutions run by the ruling PFDJ party. Those who deny the relationships of the party and its system, or its leaders with the party, and who argue otherwise, are dishonest and misleading. There is no separation between isaias the leader, the party (PFDJ), and the system it built to be entrenched. Isaias can’t stand without the party and the party can’t stand without the system it has built to secure its survival. The party and its leaders are institutionally entrenched in the system and are protected by the coercive military and security institutional apparatus.

In a people’s government the military is always neutral in the political process of a nation. Its duty is to defend and protect the nation and its people from external threat. In short, in Eritrea we have an “abnormal state” where the government institutions do everything for the interest of the party and not for the interest of the people. In such an abnormal state, there is no rule of law, no constitution, and no functioning parliament. The government runs the “virtual state” by the party laws and its guiding principles like that of North Korea or communist party of China.

The Red Army Vs Eritrean Defense Force (EDF)

The Red Army of China and The Korean people’s army (KPA), are both strictly the armies of their respective communist parties. The army personnel are enrolled in the rank and files of the parties (not all) to gain economic and political privileges of the parties and in running the state affairs of the nation.

Likewise the Eritrean Defense Forces, no matter how limited their enrollment might be, they are enrolled in the rank and file of the party (PFDJ). They are not an army of an “ideal state” (however non-existent) in the real sense as defined above. Therefore, the EDF and the security institutions are loyal to the party. Actually in his comment at Awate Forum, Mohmud Saleh, a veteran of the Eritrean liberation era, characterized the EDF as the “piggyback” of the PFDJ party (rightly so). Their cause and their interests are aligned with the interest of the party. The senior army officers are ripping benefit from the policies of the party including from the human trafficking of Eritrean youth as reported by the UN Eritrea and Somalia Monitoring group (SEMG).

Conventional coup Vs Democratic Coup

Needless to say, our nation has an institutionalized single party system – as I have stated earlier, where the army is part of the organizational and institutional structure of the party. In such a structuredregime, one can’t expect a democratic coup to happen. If there are some like my friend Salih Younis who advocate for democratic coup, it surely is an utopian dream. Not that I deny the possibility in the lowest mathematical fractions, waiting for infinite time, but if a coup is to happen in real time and real circumstance we are in, it will only be a house coup of the conventional type by those who believe in the system and the party itself as a result of power struggle. Such coup will not bring structural regime change by any account. And this in itself is doubtful. In short, if a coup is executed successfully, it will be of the unpredictable nature of conventional coups, where the coup leaders will entrench in the constitution that gives them the economic and political advantage like that of Egypt, which defies the argument of Saleh Younis and the theory of democratic coup of Varol.

Reality Check: Varol’s Assumption Vs Eritrean Defense Force

In order to substantiate my argument let us test varol’s assumptions of transitional process from a military coup to democratically elected leaders in our reality. Allow me to frame my approach by Q&A for the purpose of simplicity. I will do that on my side and I expect others to do the same to arrive at their own conclusions. Here are my questions based on Varol’s assumptions for a democratic coup:

  • Is there any popular uprising in Eritrea in order for the military to respond in favor of popular opposition against the authoritarian regime of Isaias? There aren’t signs and symptoms of that nature in Eritrea. None what so ever, because the young generation who should be the driving force for such popular uprising are bogged down in endless slave labor to do the business of the party. In short, the army doesn’t have this conditional requirement to respond to. Besides, even if there are popular uprising on the ground, the symbiotic structural relationship between the army and the party will make it difficult for the army to respond in favor of a popular movement.
  • Is the Military highly respected by the Eritrean people to stand and protect for any popular uprising? In fact the army is engaged in torturing, killing, imprisoning, and disappearing citizens, where for years their whereabouts are not known. The objective of the EDF is to protect the party’s political and economic interests.
  • Could the military institutions which are not neutral in the political process of the nation, become free of self-interest and allow a conventional coup to happen let alone stage a democratic coup? No. We have seen how the army acted during the courageous Wedi Ali led coup attempt. The senior and middle ranks of the EDF have a big stake in the party itself.
  • The rest of Varol’s criteria will follow only when the requirements (a, b, c) as stated above are conducive and applicable on the ground. Now Saleh Younis and others who wishes for a democratic coup have the burden to prove as to how Varol’s assumptions will have a favorable environment to bring a structural regime in our nation.

The current regime is not different than a conventional military regime. It is the continuation of the ghedli military culture in all its essences and forms. The Eritrean people couldn’t sanction the wrong doing of the regime, nor the senior and middle rank officers who are engaged in the dirty criminal activities against Eritreans including the common soldiers. If it stages any kind of coup, it will prohibit the imposition of criminal sanctions on the wrongdoings of the military. Furthermore, they will ask immunity for their wrongdoings. Remember this kind of talk is coming from the Medrekites and their supporters. Theyare invoking such ideas to exempt themselves and their comrades from accountability for their wrongdoings. They don’t care about the victims of the last five decades. If we don’t reconcile the violated rights of the victims of the past we will not defend the rights of the victims of the present or the future. Actually, behaviors considered harmful to the moral, political, economic, or social being of society are defined as criminal and thereby worthy of formal state sanction [walker 1980].

In conclusion, my argument is not whether there is a concept of democratic coup or not, which I will leave to the world of academia (unsettled constitutional dilemma) to sort out. My argument is, even if the concept of democratic coup is valid as defined by Varol with the characteristics and conditions he laid out to separate from the conventional coup, there is no objective reality to stage a democratic coup in Eritrea, for, (a) because of the lack of popular uprising inside Eritrea, (b) Because the military will be motivated by self-interest,(c) because the interest of the military is aligned with the interest of the ruling party. If Saleh Younis is arguing just for “a mere seizure of the state apparatus by the military without popular support,” to depose one man, then it can’t be democratic coup; but definitely a conventional military coup.

Sadly, when the moral of the Eritrean people goes down and left without alternatives; when the people lack vision and leadership that unites them, it is not unusual to seek a refugee in a military coup. Saleh Younis’ call can’t be different from that circumstantial call. But there is no objective reality for democratic coup in Eritrea. Saleh Younis will definitely ask me what my solution are? I will try to come with a short essay, though without foreign help, it looks extremely deem. And “Bisefrina” will bring a palace coup only, another hell possibly followed with a series of coups like of that Turkey. Calling for coup brings more coups.


[1] Amanuel Hidrat, “The clouds of war: A call for the defense Force of Eritrea”, October, 5, 2008.
[2] Saleh Younis, “why the Democratic coup is the best option for Eritrea”, August 30, 2014.
[3] Ozan O. Varol , “The Democratic Coup d’etat”, November 2, 2012.
[4] Ibid (Ozal varol, Nov. 2, 2012)
[5] David Austin-Smith & Jeffery S. Banks, “Positive political theory II: Strategy and Structure, pp 326, 2005.
[7] Richard Alert, “Democratic revolution” Denver University law review, vol 89 No-2, 2011.
[8] Andrew C. Jones “The seizure of power: The study of force and popular consent” Widrow Wilson sch. Of public & International affairs, Princeton university, 1964
[9] Powel and Thynes, “Coup d‘etat or D’Autocracy: How coups impact democratization, 2011.
[10] Mahmud Supra note 10, at 104, as quoted by Ozal Varol.
[11] Ginsberg & Posner, Supra note 125 at 1592 as quoted by Ozal varol.
[12] African Human security Review, “African commitments to civil society engagement: A review of eight NEPAD countries”, August 2004.


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