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Coup D'etat

Updated on July 8, 2010

Coup d'etat is the unconstitutional seizure of governmental power by a small group that employs tactics of planning and surprise, and often of limited violence. The term is a French phrase meaning "stroke (or blow) of state." Napoleon Bonaparte executed one of the first modem coups on November 9, 1799. He persuaded the members of the governing councils of the First French Republic to meet at St.-Cloud, a suburb of Paris, for security against an alleged Jacobin plot. The councils were then surrounded by soldiers and dissolved.

Unlike a revolution, seizure of power "from the top" does not usually involve a large number of citizens in a struggle for political, social, or economic changes. The sole aim of a coup executed in 1947 by the Nicaraguan national guard was to replace a new president, Leonardo Aronello, with another approved by General Anastasio Samoza, his predecessor. On the other hand, the entire membership of the Polish Socialist party provided decisive assistance to General Jozef Pilsudski in 1926 by participating in a successful general strike that halted government troop trains. The seizure of power in 1952 by Egyptian military leaders was followed by major reforms, including the expulsion of King Farouk and the socialization of the economy.

Control of strategic elements of the national military forces, the police, or other armed groups is usually a prerequisite for seizure of the government; often the seizure is preceded by cultivation of sympathetic allies in other vital institutions. Thus on March 10, 1952, Fulgencio Batista took power in Cuba in less than 90 minutes after he captured the military establishment with a small group of junior officers. In 1967, military officers, led by the army chief of staff, suspended the Greek constitution and arrested most major politicians with very little opposition. However, when the Communist party seized power in Czechoslovakia in 1948, it did so only after establishing a coalition government with other political parties in 1945, taking control of the army and police ministries, and gradually infiltrating the communications media and trade unions.

The coup d'etat has long been a method of governmental change in many Latin American countries. Long traditions of military privilege and participation in politics, combined with continuing poverty and illiteracy among the people and the weak development of democratic institutions, have contributed to persistent military intervention in political affairs. Coups d'etat have also occurred frequently in newly independent African countries. Here, the governments control only small forces to meet challenges, and severe problems have been created by rapid decolonization and by the disparity between high aspirations and the capacity of existing governments to implement policies.

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