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What is a coup?

Reuters/Murad Sezer
Turkish military stand guard near Taksim Square in Istanbul following a coup against the government of president Erdogan.
  • Jake Flanagin
By Jake Flanagin


Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Turkey is a country all-too familiar with coups. It was a coup, otherwise known as the Young Turks Revolution, that removed the Ottoman sultan from power and instituted the democratic system currently in place. That system was disrupted on Friday (July 15), when the Turkish military took control of the country’s government in Ankara.

A coup, or more formally, a coup d’état, is generally defined as a seizure of a state by members of the military, or other figures high-up in a national government. Some of the more notable examples from modern history include Napoleon Bonaparte’s overthrow of the French government in 1799; dictator Francisco Franco’s fascist takeover of Spain in 1936; Muammar al-Gaddafi’s removal of the Libyan monarchy in 1969 (and the coup that would result in his death in 2011); and the CIA-backed usurpation of Chile’s democratically elected president Salvador Allende in 1973 by Augusto Pinochet.

Political scientists generally subscribe to three types of coup, as defined by Samuel P. Huntington in his 1968 book Political Order in Changing Societies (Yale University Press):

Type 1: The breakthrough coup

The breakthrough coup is your garden-variety takeover: a revolutionary group—civilian, military, or consisting of political opposition—overthrows the seated government and names themselves the new leaders. The Bolshevik Revolution, in which Russian Communists supplanted the imperial tsarist regime, is an example of a breakthrough coup.

Type 2: The guardian coup

A guardian coup occurs when one elite seizes power from another elite—think an army general unseating a president or king—usually justifying the action by saying it’s for the broader good of the nation. The deposition of former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi by general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi would be considered, by some, to be a guardian coup.

Type 3: The veto coup

A veto coup tends to occur when the military intervenes to protect a status quo from radical political change. An example would be the 1992 overthrow of Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori after he announced intentions to temporarily dissolve the country’s legislature.

Given a statement from the Turkish military criticizing what they characterize as Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s assault on secularism, the coup underway in Turkey might be considered a veto coup.

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