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Why the White House is not going to use the word ‘coup’

Earlier today, the Egyptian military announced that it had taken "necessary measures to protect the nation and support the legitimate demands of the people." It appears more and more likely that President Hosni Mubarak will leave power tonight, leaving many observers to label the current situation a military coup. CNN at the moment is quoting ...

MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images
MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images

Earlier today, the Egyptian military announced that it had taken "necessary measures to protect the nation and support the legitimate demands of the people." It appears more and more likely that President Hosni Mubarak will leave power tonight, leaving many observers to label the current situation a military coup.

CNN at the moment is quoting a senior military official denying the characterization, but one thing is definitely for sure: You’re unlikely to hear the word coup from President Obama or any other senior administration official. (The president just spoke in Northern Michigan calling for an "orderly and genuine transition to democracy.")

As I wrote in an Explainer last April following the ouster of the government of Kyrgyzstan, the word coup carries some fairly heavy legal ramifications. Section 508 of the Foreign Operations and Appropriations Act states that U.S. financial assistance is prohibited to "any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by decree or military coup." Aid can only be restored once the State Department can certify that democratic governance has been restored — often a tough standard to meet.

Section 508 has been applied a number of times — in Cote d’Ivoire in 1999 and Fiji in 2006, for instance. But it has also led to a reluctance by U.S. officials to describe government takeovers as coups. This was on full display following the overthrow of Manuel Zelaya in Honduras in 2009.  

Of course, Egypt is a whole different beast — the third-largest recipient of U.S. military aid. But it’s hard to imagine the administration would paint itself into a corner by uttering the word "coup," no matter what happens in the days to come.

Earlier today, the Egyptian military announced that it had taken "necessary measures to protect the nation and support the legitimate demands of the people." It appears more and more likely that President Hosni Mubarak will leave power tonight, leaving many observers to label the current situation a military coup.

CNN at the moment is quoting a senior military official denying the characterization, but one thing is definitely for sure: You’re unlikely to hear the word coup from President Obama or any other senior administration official. (The president just spoke in Northern Michigan calling for an "orderly and genuine transition to democracy.")

As I wrote in an Explainer last April following the ouster of the government of Kyrgyzstan, the word coup carries some fairly heavy legal ramifications. Section 508 of the Foreign Operations and Appropriations Act states that U.S. financial assistance is prohibited to "any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by decree or military coup." Aid can only be restored once the State Department can certify that democratic governance has been restored — often a tough standard to meet.

Section 508 has been applied a number of times — in Cote d’Ivoire in 1999 and Fiji in 2006, for instance. But it has also led to a reluctance by U.S. officials to describe government takeovers as coups. This was on full display following the overthrow of Manuel Zelaya in Honduras in 2009.  

Of course, Egypt is a whole different beast — the third-largest recipient of U.S. military aid. But it’s hard to imagine the administration would paint itself into a corner by uttering the word "coup," no matter what happens in the days to come.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy  Twitter: @joshuakeating

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