Thailand, Egypt, and the ‘good coup’
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Thailand, Egypt, and the ‘good coup’

After the coup in Thailand in September 2006, there was frequent mention that it was a “good” coup  – see herehere, here, and here, but as Thitinan was quoted in Reuters in 2007:

The coup that was supposed to lead to a better democracy has been proven to be a myth,” Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political analyst at Chulalongkorn University, wrote in a commentary.

The past year in Thailand bears the chief lesson that there is no such thing as a good coup,” he said.

Most analysts say the coup makers have botched or made scant headway in achieving their stated goals of healing political divisions, eradicating corruption and reforming a political system they accused Thaksin and his allies of manipulating.

BP: The Thai military, of course, said it was not a coup, but “political change” although others, such as Surin Pitsuwan conceded that it was a coup, but just argued it was “necessary”:

But if you were in Thailand, you would appreciate the fact that it was a “necessary coup, a corrective coup,” said Surin, who is now also a member of the National Legislative Assembly installed by the military-led government.

Surin said that “there was little semblance of democracy in the Thai political system” in the last five years under ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s term. “It was (an) extremely autocratic (government). Civil liberties were contained, if not done away with. The media had been intimidated if they did not toe the line. The bureaucracy was completely under (his) control and was highly politicised. The system of checks and balances was gone. The constitutional process was manipulated. Corruption was widespread,” he said.

BP: Last week, there was also a coup in Egypt (and yes, it was a coup). There are not as many similarities between Thailand and Egypt as there are between Thailand and Turkey – see posts on Turkey and Thailand here and here – but David Streckfuss had an interesting op-ed in the Bangkok Post a few days entitled “Egyptian coup sparks a reminder of Thailand’s past”. Key excerpts:

The Egyptian military has been dreaming of a way to justify the deposing of a democratically elected president. What inspired the popular movement against Mr Morsi was his incompetence and failure to carry out the ideals of the 2011 uprising. No crime in that. But the new authority had to arrest them for something, so arrest warrants were issued for 300 leaders of Mr Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. As of the writing of this article, there is no word on the fate of Mr Morsi.

Although not exactly comparable, these two coups show a similar reversal. In Egypt, it is the “more conservative” and rural Muslim Brotherhood denouncing the coup as illegal and demanding a return of duly-elected leaders, while it was the more “progressive” and “liberal” forces celebrating the takeover by a deeply entrenched and anti-democratic military.

In Thailand, it was the “uneducated”, vote-selling and rural pro-Thaksin Shinawatra forces demanding a return of their democratically elected leader, against an urban, “educated” elite decrying parliamentary dictatorship.

In both cases, courts and other “neutral” (read: non-accountable) agencies played an important role in exacerbating conditions. After former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak resigned and the military oversaw an interim period, the newly appointed election commission disqualified many of the leading candidates for president. In the end, there was no liberal candidate of any prominence left. The Muslim Brotherhood was stuck with the “back-up” candidate Mr Morsi against a Mubarak-era official.

Once elected, Mr Morsi’s administration was hobbled when the constitutional court nullified the elections of the People’s Assembly.

BP: There are a number of other points of comparison and contrast in the article particularly on the courts…. For BP, the big differences between Thailand and Egypt are (1) the severe economic problems in Egypt under Morsi (whatever you say about Thaksin, the economy was doing well in 2006, and we had a few years of budget surpluses/very minor deficits), (2) the geo-political impact on the coup in Egypt on Islamists participating in democracy, and (3) and the Egyptian protest numbers dwarfed those in Thailand by some magnitude which (relevant to the position of who would have won a new election as Thaksin would still have won, but am not so sure Morsi would have won again) but when reading articles about Egypt it is striking to see people insist it was not a coup – see here and here as an example – although others just concede it was a coup, but it was necessary or justisifed – David Brooks’ op-ed in the New York Times entitled “Defending the Coup” being an example* –  to which a UCLA law professor stated in an op-ed in the New York Times entitled “The Perils of a ‘People’s Coup’” :

Traditionally, there have been two institutions in Egypt that have considered themselves above accountability: the military and the judiciary. Both have refused to answer to any civilian power.

Both are firmly rooted in the regime of the deposed president Hosni Mubarak; they are staunchly secular, authoritarian and corrupt. …Many so-called liberals are praising the military for upholding personal freedoms while blissfully ignoring the fact that one of the army’s first acts was to close down all media that the military, in its infinite wisdom, deemed a danger to public order. This includes Al Jazeera, which saw its office in Cairo shut and its workers threatened and arrested, and their equipment confiscated.

No country did more to undermine Mr. Morsi’s government and celebrate its fall than Saudi Arabia. The Saudis understand that the threat that the Egyptian democratic experiment once posed to Saudi autocracy is gone.

Democracy is not founded upon the principle of safeguarding the rights of the popular, but upon safeguarding the rights of the most unpopular. What so many Egyptians are forgetting is that the same “public interest” that justified the overthrow and persecution of one political party today will tomorrow justify the repression of anyone who questions the power of Egypt’s army and judiciary.

BP: Unlike in Thailand, we have had violence in Egypt in the immediate aftermath of the coup as well.

Jackson Diehl in the Washington Post:

The Islamic character of Egypt’s ousted government should not obscure the way the country resembles Argentina, Venezuela, Turkey, Thailand and other developing nations in which free elections after decades of autocracy have brought a new elite to power. The new rulers typically represent previously disenfranchised poor and rural populations, who often don’t share the cultural values of the capital’s middle and upper classes.

Applauders of military coups have in common two illusions: that the generals share their agenda and that their hated opponents, despite their electoral victories, can be politically nullified. Invariably, neither turns out to be true. Armed forces aren’t good at convening roundtables or implementing liberal platforms; they are good at using force. Even if they don’t torture and kill, they sweep up nonviolent political leaders, shut down media they regard as troublesome and try to impose political rules protecting their own political and economic interests.

BP: Indeed. One lesson we learned from Thailand was that the coup didn’t dent Thaksin’s popularity. In fact, BP would argue it actually increased it so coup supporters be careful….

* See Amy Davidson’s critique of Brooks’ column in the New Yorker and also Isaac Chotiner’s critique in The New Republic.