What Is a Coup d'Etat in Government?

Napoleon Bonaparte led one of the first coups of the modern era.
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The term “coup d’etat” derives from the French for “blow to the government” or “stroke of the state.” A coup d'etat -- sometimes shortened to "coup" -- is simply defined as the violent overthrow of an existing government by a small group. Unlike a revolution, which tends to seek more fundamental change, a coup "rarely alters a nation’s fundamental social and economic policies, nor does it significantly redistribute power among competing political groups," according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Coups also rely on complete or partial participation of military or security forces: "We can define a coup as an irregular transfer of the state's chief executive by the regular armed forces or internal security forces through the use or threat of the use of force,” writes political scientist Murat Onder.

1 Early Coups d’Etat

Since 1800 there have been more 350 successful military insurrections globally, led by such notorious men as Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Napoleon Bonaparte in France and Fidel Castro in Cuba. But the history of coups dates back at least to the sixth century B.C., when an aristocrat named Lucius Junius Brutus overthrew the king of Rome, initiating the Roman Republic. Nearly 500 years later, the republic fell in another coup. Among the earliest modern coups occurred when Napoleon Bonaparte overthrew the French Directory in 1799, and then when Louis Napoleon dissolved the French assembly in 1851.

2 Factors Involved in Coups

Military interventions in the political process -- the most extreme form being the coup -- are most commonly found in developing countries or totalitarian regimes. There are several factors often linked to the propensity for coups to take place. These include a low socio-economic development status; low levels of participation in the governing process; greater levels of military resources and cohesion within a country; and internal conflicts within a society, such as ethnic strife and sectional rivalries. Onder argues that economic and political development are the most important variables influencing the likelihood of a country experiencing a coup.

3 Different Types of Coups

Coups most often involve a small faction within the military taking over while “neutralizing the remainder of a country’s armed forces,” writes Valery Besong of Stanford University. However, there are three main types of coups, not all of which necessarily involve or originate with the military. In a presidential coup, the executive converts his or her regime into a dictatorship through the expansion of executive powers. Palace coups are undertaken by rivals within the government who replace the executive either through constitutional maneuvering or, in some cases, assassination, often with the help of at least some military elements. Finally, a putsch “is a violent military uprising by a group within the military, but not within the ruling group,” Besong writes. In these coups, military officials seize state power by force.

4 The Egyptian Coup of 2013

In July 2013, the Egyptian army overthrew the regime of the country’s president, Muhammad Morsi, who had been elected only a year prior. This coup was somewhat unique in that the Egyptian army ousted the president while claiming popular support, and in fact took action after millions of Egyptians took to the streets to protest Morsi’s policies. The army immediately took to the airwaves to promise a relatively swift return to democracy.

Jeffrey Billman is both an experienced and accomplished journalist with national awards for everything from investigative reporting to religion reporting to humor and opinion columns. A student of government and politics, he holds a master's degree in public policy analysis.