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Was the overthrow of Egypt's government a coup?

Thursday - 7/4/2013, 3:50am  ET

Fireworks light the sky opponents of Egypt's Islamist President Mohammed Morsi celebrate in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, July 3, 2013. A statement on the Egyptian president's office's Twitter account has quoted Mohammed Morsi as calling military measures "a full coup." The denouncement was posted shortly after the Egyptian military announced it was ousting Morsi, who was Egypt's first freely elected leader but drew ire with his Islamist leanings. The military says it has replaced him with the chief justice of the Supreme constitutional Court, called for early presidential election and suspended the Islamist-backed constitution.(AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

The Associated Press

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 Leahy, 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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