Was the overthrow of Egypt’s government a coup?

UPDATED ON MONDAY:

When the military overthrew President Mohammed Morsi and his Islamist government last Wednesday, placing him under house arrest, AP took a wait-and-see approach to use of the word “coup.” We initially recommended that our staff not describe the events as a coup because of what appeared to be wide public support of the army’s action — and the fact that the overthrow resembled a popular revolt as much as a classic military coup.

However, the military’s subsequent actions — jailing the leaders of the Morsi regime, arresting members of his political party and cracking down on the pro-Morsi media — have made the takeover seem more than a simple response to public pressure in that first night. Violent clashes between pro-Morsi groups and those supporting his ouster, and the dissolution of parliament by the military-installed president, laid bare deep conflicts in Egypt that are likely to continue.

“Coup” now seems to be an accurate term for what transpired, by the AP Stylebook’s main reference dictionary. Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition, defines a coup as “the sudden, forcible overthrow of a ruler, government, etc., sometimes with violence, by a small group of people already having some political or military authority.”

Therefore we’ll now use the word coup to describe the military intervention. But we’re asking our writers to add some qualifying explanation nonetheless. For example, we might refer to “an overthrow by military force — spurred by a popular revolt against the Islamist-dominated government, whose adherents resisted the coup.”

In a headline, coup is acceptable. However, stories should, for completeness, point out that the coup/takeover followed a series of widespread national protests.


Our Wednesday blog entry:

Here’s a story we put out today on the use of the word “coup” in connection with the Egypt story. As we explain in the last paragraph, the AP is, for the time being, avoiding that word in our descriptions of of what has happened. (We will use the word of course, in quoting those who do use it.)

Was the overthrow of Egypt’s Islamist government on Wednesday a coup?
Much hangs on the exact words used to describe what happened.
If the U.S. government determines the Egyptian military carried out a coup, it could affect the $1.5 billion in economic and military assistance Washington gives Egypt each year.
“U.S. aid is cut off when a democratically elected government is deposed by military coup or decree,” U.S. Sen. Patrick Lahey, a key decision-maker on U.S. foreign aid, said Wednesday. He said his foreign assistance committee “will review future aid to the Egyptian government as we wait for a clearer picture.”
In Egypt, too, the legitimacy of the military’s action hangs on how it is publicly viewed. In an English-language tweet, deposed President Mohammed Morsi said the military had staged a “full coup.” The military rejected the term, saying in a statement it never engages in coups but “always stands by the will and aspirations of the glorious Egyptian people for change and reform.”
The usual Arabic term for a military coup is “inqilab askari.” Inqilab literally means overturning; askari means military.
“Coup” comes from the French “coup d’etat,” or “stroke of state.” Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines it as the “sudden, forcible overthrow of a ruler, government, etc., sometimes with violence, by a small group of people already having some political or military authority.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language also speaks of a “small group.”
Egypt’s military overthrew an elected government after giving Morsi and his political opponents first seven days, then 48 hours to work out their own differences. Egypt’s top military officers could also be defined as a “small group,” but they acted after millions of citizens across the country demonstrated for Morsi’s removal. The military’s statement said its move was “an interaction with the pulse of the Egyptian street.”
The military installed a civilian government, not putting generals directly in power.
So far, The Associated Press is not characterizing the overthrow as a “coup,” using purely descriptive terms like “the overthrow of Morsi by the military.”
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Associated Press reporters Donna Cassata in Washington and Lee Keath in Cairo contributed to this story.

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About Tom Kent

Deputy managing editor and standards editor of The Associated Press, responsible for accuracy and balance across all AP news services. Frequent contributor to forums and conferences on newsroom ethics and organization. Adjunct professor at the School of International Affairs and Journalism School of Columbia University. Former AP correspondent or bureau chief in Russia, Iran, Belgium, Australia and the United States. Graduate of Yale University. Languages: French, Russian, Spanish. @tjrkent