"A Coup? Or Something Else?" is the question a New York Times headline is posing today (7/5/13) about the U.S. government's response to the military's removal of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. It's not just a question of semantics; U.S. law seems to require suspending aid to Egypt in case of a coup. That's why the government might not want to call it one.
But that raises another question: What is the New York Times calling it?
The paper's July 4 edition reported that "Egypt's military officers removed the country’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi." They added:
The generals built their case for intervention in a carefully orchestrated series of maneuvers, calling their actions an effort at a "national reconciliation" and refusing to call their takeover a coup.
Another piece that day referenced the "ousting the nation's civilian leader" and that "the military decided that time was up on the Morsi presidency."
In today's Times (7/5/13), under the headline "Even as Army Seizes Power, Egyptians Claim Revolt as Their Own," the paper references how "Morsi was deposed and generals again took a leading role in the country," and details "the circumstances that forced Mr. Morsi from power." One Egyptian stresses that it "was not a military coup," another calls it a "people's coup." A different piece referenced "the military ouster of the country's first freely elected president," and that Morsi "was deposed by Egypt's military commanders." There are also references to "Morsi's downfall" and "the military's intervention."
The closest the Times came to calling the coup a coup was a line about "the forced change of power, which had the trappings of a military coup spurred by a popular revolt."
That article also mentions this:
The pre-Morsi foreign minister, Mohamed Kamel Amr…held a series of meetings with the foreign news media on Thursday aimed at refuting the idea that Egypt had undergone a military coup.
It's doubtful the Times would need such a meeting to decide not to call what happened in Egypt a coup. But it's interesting to note the similarity between the U.S. government's public position on this question and the Newspaper of Record.
When the military of a country deposes an elected leader, shutters media outlets associated with the former president's party and arrests members of that party, that's generally considered a coup. As the Times acknowledges in the piece today about U.S. aid to Egypt, these terms matter.
Considering the recent history of major U.S. media outlets like the Times–supporting the coup in Venezuela against Hugo Chavez without calling it one, spinning for the coup in Honduras that ousted left-wing President Manuel Zelaya–it's clear that the "c-word" is deployed, and avoided, very carefully.