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Explainer

It wasn’t a coup, but Capitol riot resembled events seen in fragile democracies

Experts say deadly attack on US legislature meets 2 criteria for being called a coup attempt, but not a third; rather, it is a form of election violence like in Cameroon

Violent protesters, loyal to US President Donald Trump, storm the Capitol on January 6, 2021, in Washington.  (AP/ John Minchillo)
Violent protesters, loyal to US President Donald Trump, storm the Capitol on January 6, 2021, in Washington. (AP/ John Minchillo)

THE CONVERSATION via AP — Did the United States just have a coup attempt?

Supporters of US President Donald Trump, following his encouragement, stormed the US Capitol building on January 6, disrupting the certification of Joe Biden’s election victory. Waving Trump banners, hundreds of people broke through barricades and smashed windows to enter the building where Congress convenes. One rioter and one police officer died in the clash and several other police officers were hospitalized. Congress went on lockdown.

While violent and shocking, what happened on January 6 wasn’t a coup.

This Trumpist insurrection was election violence, much like the election violence that plagues many fragile democracies.

What is a coup?

While coups do not have a single definition, researchers who study them – like ourselves – agree on the key attributes of what academics call a “coup event.”

Coup experts Jonathan Powell and Clayton Thyne define a coup d’etat as “an overt attempt by the military or other elites within the state apparatus to unseat the sitting head of state using unconstitutional means.”

Essentially, three parameters are used to judge whether an insurrection is a coup event:

1) Are the perpetrators agents of the state, such as military officials or rogue governmental officials?

2) Is the target of the insurrection the chief executive of the government?

3) Do the plotters use illegal and unconstitutional methods to seize executive power?

Coups and coup attempts

Egyptian protesters celebrate the military overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi outside the presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt, July 3, 2013. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

A successful coup occurred in Egypt on July 3, 2013, when army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi forcefully removed the country’s unpopular president, Mohamed Morsi. Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected leader, had recently overseen the writing of a new constitution. Sissi suspended that, too. This qualifies as a coup because Sissi seized power illegally and introduced his own rule of law in the ashes of the elected government.

Coups don’t always succeed in overthrowing the government.

In 2016, members of the Turkish military attempted to remove Turkey’s strongman president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, from power. Soldiers seized key areas in Ankara, the capital, and Istanbul, including the Bosphorus Bridge and two airports. But the coup lacked coordination and widespread support, and it failed quickly after President Erdogan called on his supporters to confront the plotters. Erdogan remains in power today.

In this July 16, 2016 photo, tanks, part of the forces that attempted a coup, move into position as people attempt to stop them, in Ankara, Turkey. (AP Photo/File)

What happened at the US Capitol?

The uprising at the Capitol building does not meet all three criteria of a coup.

Trump’s rioting supporters targeted a branch of executive authority – Congress – and they did so illegally, through trespassing and property destruction. Categories #2 and #3, check.

As for category #1, the rioters appeared to be civilians operating of their own volition, not state actors. President Trump did incite his followers to march on the Capitol building less than an hour before the crowd invaded the grounds, insisting the election had been stolen and saying: “We will not take it anymore.” This comes after months of spreading unfounded electoral lies and conspiracies that created a perception of government malfeasance in the mind of many Trump supporters.

Trump supporters try to open a door of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Whether the president’s motivation in inflaming the anger of his supporters was to assault Congress is not clear, and he tepidly told them to go home as the violence escalated. For now it seems the riot in Washington, DC, was enacted without the approval, aid or active leadership of government actors like the military, police or sympathetic GOP officials.

American political elites are hardly blameless, though.

By spreading conspiracy theories about election fraud, numerous Republican senators, including Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, created the conditions for political violence in the United States, and specifically electoral-related violence.

Academics have documented that contentious political rhetoric fuels the risk of election-related violence. Elections are high-stakes; they represent a transfer of political power. When government officials demean and discredit democratic institutions as a simmering political conflict is underway, contested elections can trigger political violence and mob rule.

So what did happen?

The shocking events of January 6 were political violence of the sort that too often mars elections in young or unstable democracies.

Supporters of US President Donald Trump protest in the US Capitol Rotunda on January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC. (SAUL LOEB / AFP)

Bangladeshi elections suffer from perennial mob violence and political insurrections due to years of government violence and opposition anger. Its 2015 and 2018 elections looked more like war zones than democratic transitions.

In Cameroon, armed dissidents perpetrated violence in the 2020 election, targeting government buildings, opposition figures and innocent bystanders alike. Their aim was to delegitimize the vote in response to sectarian violence and government overreach.

The United States’ electoral violence differs in cause and context from that seen in Bangladesh and Cameroon, but the action was similar. The US didn’t have a coup, but this Trump-encouraged insurrection is likely to send the country down a politically and socially turbulent road.

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