A fierce debate is raging in Egypt about the relative merits of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s current takeover of the country. Critics of the system of collective executive responsibility, or non-democratic dynamics, point to the ease with which the Egyptian leader – supported by the military – has been able to depose Prime Minister Sherif Ismail and Senate President Saad el-Katatni, and the apparent reluctance of the country’s military chiefs to interfere against him. So has El-Sisi won a “soft coup”? Is he, in effect, in charge of the country?
A harder look at events in Egypt and elsewhere across Africa reveals a more complicated story, one that is more fraught with danger and uncertainty. The extra-judicial killings of anti-government demonstrators and the near-disappearance of a young family member by family members in central Kenya are seen by the broader public as further proof that military coups are still possible in Africa. Coups also tend to be tolerated by elites in the region, partly because of the status of the one who takes power – often an executive and cabinet member from a civil service known for the double loyalty to the president and the regime. However, in countries where it has been attempted, coups often end in bitterness and resentment of the players who initially took to the barricades to challenge the power of their own clique.
Abuja, Nigeria, appeared to be progressing along this path late last year when disgruntled military officers led by retired General Muhammadu Buhari, then a former military leader, successfully toppled the elected government of President Muhammadu Buhari, who remains head of state and army chief. Another coup d’état seems likely this year in Kenya, where angry citizens are holding a referendum on constitutional reform. But it was not only coups that hit the headlines in 2018 in Africa: Gambia was forced to hold a national election in December, when last month the country’s leader of 16 years had the virtual last-minute backing of forces loyal to former President Yahya Jammeh to give up power to Adama Barrow, another longtime regime loyalist.