Barack Obama summoned his National Security Council to the White House on July 4, 2013, the day after General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had appeared on television to declare that the Egyptian people had called on him to “secure essential protection for the demands of the revolution,” and the military had encircled the presidential palace, with Egypt’s fifth president, Mohamed Morsi, in it. Obama had recently reminded journalists that opponents of the democratically elected Morsi should follow “legal, legitimate processes” to remove him. Now, to a surprised room, he announced that of course the United States could not call Morsi’s ouster a coup d’état.
Everyone else had come to the meeting prepared to argue over the application of the “coup law”: the statute that requires cutting off aid to any military that topples an elected government. Wouldn’t the White House risk its credibility if it did not call the coup what it was?, asked General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Ben Rhodes, the president’s foreign-policy speechwriter, made the same case. But others around the table wanted to back Morsi’s ouster. Secretary of State John Kerry argued that Morsi’s removal was not, in fact, a coup. Sisi was bowing to the public will and acting to save Egypt, he asserted with passion. The loudest voice in the White House for human rights and democracy, Samantha Power, was absent, preparing for her confirmation as ambassador to the United Nations.
Obama decided not to decide. The administration made no determination about whether what happened on July 3 in Cairo was a military coup. Privately, some White House staff came to call Morsi’s ouster “the couplike event.”
—Adapted from Into the Hands of the Soldiers: Freedom and Chaos in Egypt and the Middle East, by David D. Kirkpatrick, published by Viking
This article appears in the September 2018 print edition with the headline “A Coup by Any Other Name.”