The ‘alternative facts’ of a coup
Why are military rulers so keen to deny what they have really done?
On November 15, as tanks rolled into Harare, Zimbabwean military spokesman Major General Sibusiso Moyo addressed the nation. Dressed in camouflage, Moyo reassured Zimbabweans that the army’s actions were not a coup, even though President Robert Mugabe was under house arrest, state media was under military control, and political opponents were being arrested.
Soldiers taking power and denying staging a coup is nothing new, especially after the end of the Cold War. Yet, in the last years, statements that don’t only twist, disguise, and distort the meaning of words but blatantly deny reality itself are becoming a common feature of political debate around the world, from Harare to Cairo, from Bangkok to Washington.
We know that he who controls language controls meaning and he who controls meaning controls reality. But what happens when the powerful deny reality?
‘It’s not a coup’
On August 6, across the globe from Zimbabwe, another man in uniform addressed his nation. Capitan Juan Caguaripano reassured the people of Venezuela that his soon-to-fail attempt to depose elected President Nicolas Maduro was “not a coup, but a civil and military action to re-establish constitutional order.”
The script was familiar. Three years earlier, in Thailand, General Prayuth Chan-Ocha used the same words. On May 20, 2014, the austere military man deposed elected Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and took power. “This is not a coup,” he declared on national television, echoing the words of the master of coup-denial, the Egyptian dictator Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi.
There are many good reasons to deny that you are staging a coup.
In July of the previous year, el-Sisi seized power from elected President Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. His actions had nothing to do with a military takeover, el-Sisi claimed. Scores of secular Egyptian commentators confirmed his version, and a green laser beam echoed them from the facade of a government building overlooking a crowded Tahrir Square: “it is not a Coup”.
Readers may find these words hardly surprising. After all, there are many good reasons to deny that you are staging a coup. For starters, it’s hard to establish internal legitimacy for a government whose claim relies exclusively on tanks and guns. On top of that, a coup hardly invites international support.
The US, for example, has a law that compels the State Department to suspend aid to governments that come to power through coups. Similarly, regional organisations, such as the African Union, increasingly refuse to recognise military take-overs as legitimate, fearing it may encourage others.
Finally, the military seizing power doesn’t play well in the simplified moral world of Western news cycles which equate coups with “bad” and elected governments with “good”.
Lying about staging a coup, then, seems like the reasonable thing to do.
The words of General Moyo – and those of his colleagues in camouflage – may seem just a contemporary example of doublespeak. Yet, if we take a step back, start connecting the dots, and put them in the context of global political rhetoric, something new and sinister begins to appear; something visible in its purest form in the words of Trump’s campaign strategist and counsellor, Kellyanne Conway.
In January, responding to an embarrassing attempt by Sean Spicer to defend an undeniably false statement he made about the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration, Conway said he there was no falsity in his statement, he just provided “alternative facts”. Her words, as those of el-Sisi, Prayuth, and Moyo, are more than doublespeak.
The Orwellian term implies an awareness of the difference between opinions and facts and a command over their blurring. In doublespeak, facts can be distorted but with an understanding that they exist on a different plane from interpretations. Facts remain facts.
The new form of rhetoric denies this difference; it is an attack on reality itself. While doublespeak relies on ambiguous sentences and meandering logic, this new form is proud of its clarity. It is confident in its rejection of facts and adamant in showing their inefficiency in contradicting opinions.
Politicians are used to cloud interpretations; now they are proudly declaring the victory of opinions over facts. There is nothing duplicitous in this way of thinking, no consciousness of truth, no attempt to control reality. It just presents a new reality. This is the ultimate feature of contemporary authoritarianism.
There is only one cure we can use against this malaise: reclaiming and asserting reality, even if is not what we would like it to be; speaking truth to power, even if power resides in ourselves; preserving integrity, even if it may require shedding parts of ourselves.
Zimbabwe, Egypt, and Thailand are now military dictatorships, whether we like their new leaders or not. Authoritarianism is on the rise and is occasionally ushered in through democratic elections, whether we agree with their results or not. Extreme right-wing movements and white supremacists are thriving in the cracks of Euro-American capitalism, whether we continue to think about this system as the cradle of democracy or not.
Denying these facts or blaming them on Chinese influences, Russian hackers, “radical Islamism”, or mass idiocy makes us only look like General Moyo: a man in funny dress negating what is clearly happening around him and his role in it.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.