‘Coup’ and ‘Revolution’ Are Loaded Words Best Avoided

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The failed (for now) attempt by Juan Guaido, recognized by many countries as Venezuela’s interim president, to displace tenacious dictator Nicolas Maduro has caused a confusion among commentators: Do we call this a coup or a popular uprising, perhaps a revolution? It may well be that a more neutral term is required.

It’s not the first time such a debate has sprung up. In 2013, Wikipedia’s volunteer editors fought a fierce war over how to designate the displacement of Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi: as a coup or as a revolution. (Those describing it as a coup appear to have won.) Similar discussions arose about the power transfers in Mali in 2012, in Brazil in 2016, in Zimbabwe in 2017. (In the latter case, deposed President Robert Mugabe’s opponents preferred the term “military constitutionalism.”) Russian President Vladimir Putin keeps referring to what Ukrainians call their Revolution of Dignity — the unseating of President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014 — as an “anticonstitutional coup and armed power grab,” justifying Russia’s subsequent aggression against Ukraine.

In the Venezuelan crisis, as often before, which word one uses has come to indicate whom one supports: coup bad, uprising good.

My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Eli Lake noted early on that “coup” matches the messaging of the Maduro side, which, in his view, should make it unacceptable; he suggested using “democratic rescue mission” instead. Political scientist Yascha Mounk from Johns Hopkins University made a similar argument in a Twitter thread: “A coup is the overthrow of a democratically elected government by military means. What’s happening is a legitimate—and inspiring!—uprising against a dictator with no democratic legitimacy.”

In 1952, U.S. historian Crane Brinton suggested that while a coup simply replaces one elite with another, a revolution, like the French one in the 18th century or the Russian one in the 20th, leads to profound changes in society. But such a judgment requires historical distance. The temporary military takeover in Egypt that led to Mursi’s election in 2012 was hailed as a revolution — but when he usurped nearly unlimited power, he, too, was deposed in an eruption of popular protest; the jury is still out on whether the series of events that ultimately led to the dictatorial rule of President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi was a revolution or merely a succession of coups and uprisings.

Even what used to be known as the Russian Revolution of 1917 — and not just to Russians but also to many Westerners — is now more commonly referred to in Russia, and described in Russian schoolbooks, as “the October Bolshevik coup.”

It may be unclear for decades whether it’s fairer to describe a case of mass disturbances as a popular uprising or a riot.

This calls for an impartial framework to describe irregular power transitions in progress. Designating such an event a coup or a revolutionary uprising according to which side we’re on is a variation on a centuries-old epigram by Elizabethan courtier, poet and flush toilet inventor Sir John Harington: “Treason doth never prosper, what’s the reason? / For if it prosper, none dare call it treason.”

One way to solve the predicament would be to strip the word “coup” of its negative connotation, which, according to dictionary definitions, is not firmly glued to it.

The Oxford Dictionary defines a coup as “a sudden, violent, and illegal seizure of power from a government.” Merriam-Webster’s definition of a coup d’etat is substantially different: “A sudden decisive exercise of force in politics, especially the violent overthrow or alteration of an existing government by a small group.”

The illegality element is present in only one of the definitions, and it can be argued that it shouldn’t be there. In Turkey, for example, the military has stepped in from time to time to stop elected governments from interfering with the secular constitutional order — a role reserved for it by Mustafa Kemal, the founder of the modern Turkish state. These interventions weren’t exactly illegal, but most academic sources still classify them as coups.

Neither of the definitions matches Mounk’s contention that a coup must be directed against a democratically elected government. Indeed, dictators are overthrown by would-be dictators or military juntas all the time. A regime change data set recently published by economists Christian Bjornskov and Martin Rode indicates that out of 381 military coups from 1950 to 2016, 240 were perpetrated against military regimes.

But doing away with the negative connotation doesn’t solve the other problem with the word “coup.” The existing definitions don’t fit many of the events it has been used to describe.

The first characteristic of a coup, according to the dictionaries, is suddenness. Neither Guaido’s attempt to get Maduro to leave nor, for example, the Ukrainian events of 2014 or the Sudanese and Algerian ones this year fit the bill. Popular pressure on Maduro, Yanukovych, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and Algerian leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika to give up office built up gradually, and their ouster wasn’t “sudden” even if it was abrupt. For similar reasons, none of these power changes fit the part of the Merriam-Webster definition that claims coups tend to be carried out by small groups.

Another common element in the two dictionary definitions is violence. It has occurred in Venezuela and Ukraine, but not, for example, in Zimbabwe or, on any significant scale, in Algeria.

Like many others, I’ve used the words “revolution” and “coup” as a matter of opinion. But the more irregular power transitions I watch, the more caution I want to exercise with these loaded words. Neutral terms such as “takeover,” or, to cite U.S. political scientist James Rosenau, “authority war” are more accurate, especially in unclear situations like Venezuela. A Guaido victory won’t necessarily lead to a benign, democratic outcome rather than more chaos.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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