There are many case studies from history worldwide to answer that question. I lived in Bangkok from 1993 to 1998 and traveled extensively around Asia during those years as a working freelance foreign correspondent published in The Globe and Mail, the Boston Globe, the South China Morning Post, the Observer News Service and other publications. I was an eyewitness to a military coup in Cambodia in July 1997, and in 1999 I made two long trips to Pakistan.

I was paying close enough attention to Pakistan’s severely and chronically dysfunctional civilian politics that, when General Pervez Musharraf overthrew Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on October 12, 1999, I was utterly unsurprised. (The definitive account of that fascinating event is in the first edition of the book Pakistan: Eye of the Storm by the excellent BBC correspondent Owen Bennett Jones.)

What follows below is a short excerpt from my book of topical narrative travel Alive and Well in Pakistan, first published in 2004 (10th anniversary edition published by Blue Ear Books in 2014 and called “Magnificent” by Ahmed Rashid, “Intelligent and compelling” by Mohsin Hamid, and “Wonderful” by Edwidge Danticat). I’m reproducing it here now because it seems timely and likely to be of interest to thoughtful Americans.

Ethan Casey

Seattle, January 4, 2019


“What is happening now is precisely how a tiger becomes a man-eater,” Cecil Chaudhry [a national hero as a fighter pilot in two wars against India and leader of Pakistan’s minority Christian community] warned me. “It’s obvious. This is how all our martial laws have happened. It’s not as though there’s Bonapartism in the army. It’s failure of civilians. One institution after another is being destroyed or desecrated. He [PM Nawaz Sharif] is opening up too many fronts for himself. The writing is there on the wall, the way the army is being involved.” The new army chief, he added in a tone of respect, “is a soldier.” This was General Pervez Musharraf, whom the world soon would get to know better.

“The only way you could get rid of Nawaz Sharif is through an army coup,” [leading editor and commentator] Najam Sethi told me in February 1999. “Otherwise you have to wait three years until the next election. And I can tell you that Nawaz is not going to agree to hold a fair election.” …

The army ousted Nawaz Sharif in a spine-tingling but bloodless and thoroughly unsurprising coup on October 12, 1999, after he recklessly tried to dismiss the army chief for the second time in 12 months. The liberal West wrung its hands and imposed sanctions. My experience of the coup in Cambodia had taught me that coups happen when something has to give. For better or worse the armed forces are a bedrock institution of any state, and power abhors a vacuum. After its coup Pakistan under Musharraf limped along, doing what it always does: making the best of a bad situation.