When Is A Coup Not A Coup?

Words don't always mean what you think they mean.

Mideast Egypt

In the wake of last week’s events in Egypt, several people have observed that U.S. military aid to that nation, which has been the primary source of our ability to have at least some influence with the military leadership in that country for the past three years, may be in legal jeopardy. The problem lies in provisions of U.S. law that require military aid to be suspended in the event of a military coup in a country where we have been providing aid. This part of the law last became implicated in the wake of the 1999 military coup in Pakistan that deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, but it was quietly and quickly swept aside in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks when the cooperation of the Pakistani leaders became essential to military operations in Afghanistan. Now, with Mohammed Morsi swept out of power and replaced with a civilian leadership appointed by the military, the law is being implicated once again, threatening to complicate the U.S. relationship with Egypt.

On the very day of the that Morsi, Senator Patrick Leahy, speaking in this case as the Chairman on the Appropriations Subcommittee that controls the State Department’s budget, said publicly that the law required the U.S. to cut off aid:

Responding to the ousting of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi on Wednesday, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said in a statement that U.S. law is clear that foreign aid “is cut off when a democratically elected government is deposed by military coup or decree.”

“The Morsi government has been a great disappointment to the people of Egypt, and to all who wish Egypt a successful transition to responsive, representative government under the rule of law,” said Leahy, who is chairman of the Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on the State Department and Foreign Operations. “He squandered an historic opportunity, preferring to govern by fiat rather than work with other political parties to do what is best for all Egyptians.  Egypt’s military leaders say they have no intent or desire to govern, and I hope they make good on their promise.”

“In the meantime, our law is clear: U.S. aid is cut off when a democratically elected government is deposed by military coup or decree.  As we work on the new budget, my committee also will review future aid to the Egyptian government as we wait for a clearer picture.

Today, during one of his obligatory appearances on a Sunday morning talk show, Senator John McCain agreed:

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) reiterated his call Sunday for the United States to suspend foreign aid to Egypt, even as several other senators declined to take that position.

“Reluctantly, I believe that we have to suspend aid until such time as there is a new constitution and a free and fair election,” McCain said on CBS’s “Face The Nation.”


The Arizona senator said what happened in Egypt was a coup, and he blamed it on a lack of U.S. leadership in the region.

“It was a coup and it was the second time in two-and-a-half years that we have seen the military step in. It is a strong indicator of a lack of American leadership and influence,” McCain said.

Other Senators didn’t sign on to what Leahy and McCain are saying:

“At the end of the day, while we have already made some obligations on that $1.4 billion, by no means have we made the overwhelming amount of that obligation,” [Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert] Menendez said on NBC’s “Meet The Press.” “This is an opportunity to have a pause and say to the Egyptians, you have an opportunity to come together. You have to have the military understand that that’s what we are looking for.”

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, cautioned against rushing into discussions about aid.

“There will be plenty of time to asses the aid issue,” Corker said on “Fox News Sunday,” later adding,”Trying to jump to what we are going to do relative to support at this moment is not the place that we need to be.”

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said on the same program: “I think on a practical basis we have to look and ask a very simple question: Will cutting off aid accelerate or enhance the opportunities and the chances to have a truly Democratic government? I don’t think so.”

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) called the military in Egypt the “one stable factor there.” The military “should continue to be rewarded” for its stabilizing presence, Rogers said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

The Egyptian Ambassador to the United States, who was appointed by former President Morsi but has been a part of the Egyptian Foreign Service since the early 1980s, insisted there was no coup:

“This is not a coup?” ABC’s Jonathan Karl asked.

“Absolutely not,” said Tawfik, who was appointed by Morsi.

“The military — listen, what happened was, you had over 15 million people in the street. And President Morsi, he could have said, ‘Listen, my people, I listen, I hear you.’ But instead of that, he whipped up religious fervor among his supporters. And there was violence in the air. After more than 20 people had been killed, leaders from Egyptian parties, from Egyptian religious establishments, from the military, they came together, they said, ‘We have to stop this, otherwise violence will spiral out of control.'”

That sure sounds like a coup to me, but in the end whether what happened in the Egypt last week meets the classical or, more importantly statutory definition of a coup, doesn’t really matter. When Hosni Mubarak was forced from office in February 2011, it was largely due to pressure from the military leadership that had served under him, and that leadership continued to serve as Egypt’s de facto rulers for more than a year until being replaced by Morsi and the rest of the civilian leadership just over a year ago. There was no determination at that point that a military coup had taken place, and the aid from Washington to the Egyptian military continued to flow. I suspect that the exact same thing will happen this time around.

The best signal of that can be seen in how the Obama Administration has reacted publicly:

WASHINGTON — President Obama said Wednesday that he was deeply concerned about the military overthrow of Egypt’s first elected president, although he avoided describing the ouster as a military coup, which would trigger automatic cuts in U.S. aid to a longtime ally that is key to U.S.-backed regional security accords.

Obama pointedly did not call for ousted President Mohamed Morsi to be returned to power, however. The U.S. president also did not openly condemn the Egyptian military for suspending the constitution and ending, at least for now, the fledgling democracy that emerged after Egyptians overthrew Morsi’s predecessor, longtime U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak, 28 months ago.

After huddling for most of the afternoon in the White House Situation Room with Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr., CIA Director John Brennan, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other senior officials, Obama cited the “legitimate grievances of the Egyptian people” and urged the Egyptian military “to move quickly and responsibly to return full authority back to a democratically elected civilian government as soon as possible.”

That last part of the President’s statement in the immediate hours after the overthrow of former President Morsi was perhaps the most significant thing. Rather than calling on the military to return authority to “the democratically elected civilian government,” which would have been a clear reference to Morsi, the statement refers to “a democratically elected civilian government.” That’s a small difference in grammar that speaks volumes diplomatically. Mere hours after he had been removed from office, the United States was already signaling that Obama was accepting the fact that Morsi was gone, the military was in what it claims will be temporary control of the country, and calling on the new leaders to transition to civilian rule. So, obviously, the Obama Administration isn’t going to call what happened in Egypt a coup.

It’s entirely cynical, of course, but then there’s a lot of that going on in Washington in general and foreign relations in particular. In this case, it’s simply inconceivable that the U.S. is going to give up the leverage that continued aid to the Egyptian military supposedly gives us. Getting back, then to the question asked in the post title, a coup isn’t a coup when the people in power don’t want to call it one.

FILED UNDER: Barack Obama, Congress, Military Affairs, National Security, Politicians, US Politics, , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. Brett says:

    Maybe the leverage is part of it, but considering that most of the aid is basically a check for the Egyptian government to use to buy American weaponry and equipment, I suspect domestic concerns are at work as well.

  2. edmondo says:

    a coup isn’t a coup when the people in power don’t want to call it one.

    It’s just a pattern with this Administration. It’s not healthcare reform either. Nor is there a real Democrat in the White House.

  3. JohnMcC says:

    As you yourself observed in your previous O.P., Mr Morsi had earlier “set about defying the Constitutional Court by calling the supposedly dissolved Parliament into session….(and) had granted himself many of the same dictatorial powers that Mubarak had used…”

    So there was indeed a military coup. I have not heard anyone dispute that. And there was indeed an earlier democratic election. But the government that was overthrown by the coup was not the same as the democratically elected one that Egyptian voters had selected.

    It is a muddle. And the law regarding military aid should be followed. But it is a far, far cry from the Algerian coup (for example) in which the military, seeing signs that the Salafi’s were going to win an election, called off the election in mid-stream and seized power provoking a horrible civil war.

  4. bill says:

    looks like a coup, smells like one too- must be a coup.

  5. 11B40 says:


    I seem to remember Napoleon Bonaparte saying something along the lines of “There you stand with your book of laws. Here I stand with my bayonets.”

    If a democratically elected civilian government becomes lawless, who you gonna call ??? Not that there’s anything wrong with the Obama administration in that regard.

  6. Caj says:

    When is a coup not a coup? When it is. That’s my answer. Next question.