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Lesson Plan Booster: History of the Coup

Following reports of coups in the news, history teachers can use the opportunity to examine how coups and revolutions have shaped the international political landscape for centuries. (IIf referencing the 2011 Libyan coup, see Moammar Gadhafi: A Life of Violence for a timeline that can help guide student discussion.)

The late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi saw his country overtaken by a coup.

Since the creation of governmental society, those not in power have sought to attain it. Many times this leads to violent attempts to overthrow the incumbent government. Recent coups have taken place in Libya, Egypt, Madagascar and Fiji. This lesson helps students examine some of history’s most important coups and how they have impacted the conflicts going on today.

Grade Level:         9-12

Student learning objectives

Students will gain a better understanding of what defines a coup, what causes a coup, and how coups can be avoided in the future.


Define the word “coup.”  The following comes from the Encarta World English Dictionary.

Seizure of political power:  The sudden violent overthrow of a government and seizure of political power, especially by the military

Successful action:  A success that is unexpected and achieved with exceptional skill

Feat of bravery:  Among some Native American peoples, a feat of bravery during battle, especially touching an enemy warrior without harming him

Synonyms: coup d'état, overthrow, revolution, rebellion, takeover, upheaval

  1. Familiarize yourself with the current situation in a country undergoing political upheaval. Any reputable news outlet would carry the latest updates. Recommended sites include NBC, BBC and CNN.
  2. Get up to speed with coups that took place in Libya and Egypt in 2011.
  3. Research famous coups in world history. An obvious place to start would be one of the very few coups that ultimately led to great success for both combatants; the American Revolution. We are all familiar with the story; a small group of British citizens became fed up with their lack of representation in Parliament. Despite protests, King George refused to grant them representation. The citizens organized, militarized and overthrew the reigning government.

    Examine the theory that if King George had granted the colonies representation in Parliament, the American Revolution never would have happened and the United States would never have existed. Rather, this country would still be part of the United Kingdom.

    Another famous coup was, in fact, inspired by the success of the American Revolution. When the French underclass stormed the Bastille and deposed their monarchy, they also succeeded in forming a new government.
  4. Gain an understanding of the different types of coups. The political scientist Samuel P. Huntington identifies three classes of coup d'état:

    Breakthrough coup d'état: This is when a revolutionary army overthrows a traditional (civilian) government (either a democracy or a monarchy) and creates a new bureaucratic elite. This type of coup is generally led by mid-level or junior officers. Examples are China in 1911, Egypt in 1952, Libya in 1969, and Liberia in 1980.

    Guardian coup d'état: This is known as the “musical chairs” coup. The goal of such a coup is usually improving public order and ending corruption. There typically is no change to the power structure. Rather, the leaders portray their actions as a temporary and unfortunate necessity. An example of this is the civilian Prime Minister of Pakistan Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's overthrow by Chief of Army Staff General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in 1977. General Zia-ul-Haq cited widespread civil disorder and impending civil war as his justification. Countries that experience guardian coups can frequently shift back and forth between civilian and military governments or dictatorships.

    Veto coup d'état: This occurs when the army vetoes the people’s mass participation and social mobilization in governing themselves. In such a case, the army confronts and suppresses large-scale, broad-based civil opposition. This kind of conflicts often turns deadly. The 20 July 1944 plot by parts of the German military to overthrow the elected government of Adolf Hitler in Germany is an example of a failed veto coup d'état.

    A coup d'état is typed according to the military rank of the lead usurper. The veto coup d'état and the guardian coup d'état are effected by the army's commanding officers, while the breakthrough coup d'état is effected by junior officers or non-commissioned officers.
  5. Learn about bloodless coups d'état, where the threat of violence is enough to depose the incumbent. In 1889, Brazil became a republic via bloodless coup, and in 1999, Pervez Musharraf assumed power in Pakistan via a bloodless coup.
  6. Consider famous coups from pop culture. In the Star Wars saga, the Rebel Alliance mounts a coup against the reigning government. In “Return of the Jedi,” the culmination of the film series, the Rebels are successful in assassinating the top two leaders in the government and destroying its most dangerous military weapon, the Death Star spacecraft.


Introducing discussion to students

With the level of civil unrest in the world today, it becomes important to put events in the proper context. We also should compare these events to those that took place in the past so that we can learn from the mistakes made previously and potentially avoid them in the future.


Options for student discussion questions

  1. How do we define the word coup? What do you make of the Native American definition of coup, which emphasizes bravery and "touching an enemy warrior without harming him," rather than violence?
  2. What have you heard about coups recently in the news? Where have they occurred, why, and how?
  3. How were the coup in Libya and the coup in Egypt that occurred in 2011 similar to the ones that occurred many years ago in America and France? How are they different?
  4. Was it necessary to use violence to solve these disputes?
  5. How would America be different if there never was a revolution?
  6. Why aren’t bloodless coups more popular? Why aren’t they more effective?
  7. How has technology impacted the ways in which coups occur? (Consider the case of Egypt in 2011.)
  8. What is the aftermath of a coup—what steps must a country go through in order to rebuild its government? Does it depend on the type of government that existed prior to the coup?
  9. What do you think the future holds for Libya and Egypt?
  10. Are there other countries in which coups are likely to occur in the near future?

Related resources

Moammar Gadhafi: A Life of Violence

Article by Jason Tomaszewski, EducationWorld Associate Editor
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