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World Was Morsi’s ouster a ‘coup d’état’ or not? World chooses its words carefully

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi is seen on July 13, 2012.

MAYA ALLERUZZO/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The ouster of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi is generating significant debate about what Wednesday's events should actually be called.

Specifically: Was it a coup d'état?

Many supporters of the ouster, including military leaders in Egypt, have denied it is a coup. Many Western diplomats have tiptoed around the issue.

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While for some it might be just semantics, the word carries significance for factions inside Egypt, as well as foreign governments.

"The definition of a coup is the overturning of a leadership, a legitimate leadership, by other powers, often military," said Paul Sullivan, an expert in international relations at Georgetown University in Washington. But he said the word "legitimate" is what can generate a significant amount of debate.

"Many people in Egypt do not consider Morsi, or the previous president now I suppose, to have been a legitimate leader. So the use of the word 'coup' seems inappropriate to them," he said. "It depends where you're looking from."

In turn, Prof. Sullivan said, Morsi supporters are saying the actions of the military constitute a coup – likely in an effort to garner international support for themselves – as a legitimately elected government was overthrown.

Abdallah Schleifer, a journalism professor at The American University in Cairo, said the military's insistence that it wasn't a coup is largely due to American congressional rules that state any army that makes a coup d'état against a democratically elected president will be in jeopardy of losing U.S. aid.

But Prof. Schleifer says that there's also a larger, more philosophical consequence at play. "Part of the opposition [to Morsi] are secular liberals and liberals should not be in favour of coup d'états and that's kind of a liberal piety," he said.

Western diplomats and politicians, particularly in the United States, are reluctant to call it a coup for the same reason, he said.

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"Americans, the White House, we should be against coups d'états because we believe in the democratic process," he said. "Egypt is very important to the United States, no matter who is running it. If they condemn it as a coup d'état, I couldn't believe they would be so inept. They'll come up with some sort of formula."

And was it a coup? On that, Prof. Sullivan and Prof. Schleifer agree: Yes.

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