Two days after the Egyptian army issued an ultimatum for embattled Egyptian President Mohammed Mosri to deal with the demands of the millions of protesters who've poured into the streets to call for his departure, the head of the military, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, announced the ouster of the president. At a podium flanked by military officials, religious leaders and an opposition leader, al-Sisi announced the suspension of the constitution and a technocratic government that would soon give way to another round of parliamentary elections.
As the deadline for the 48-hour ultimatum neared, armored military troop carriers rolled into areas where pro-Morsi demonstrators were gathering. Less reliable reports based on utterances of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood allies indicated Morsi's been cut off from communication. Whatever one thinks of Morsi—about whether he should continue to rule or whether he does indeed have the real "legitimacy" he laid claim to last night—the military took control from an elected government along lines that fit with just about every traditional definition of a coup. It is, quite literally, a textbook coup.
There can be little doubt that Morsi's democratic credentials remained wanting; while elected, he'd since failed to act on democratic principles of governing on behalf of the whole country and protecting minority rights. Nor did Morsi make any concrete gains, in his short year in power, toward easing Egypt's economic woes. His term, so far, had been a disaster. But while the constitution was rammed through, Morsi rules by its writ; his removal in this developing fashion violates it. Now, that doesn't mean that the coup can't be carried out and still produce a democratic—more democratic, in this case—outcome. At Foreign Policy, Joshua Keating has an excellent study on the literature and historical examples that fit this description. But note the premise in the question Keating asks: "Can a coup ever be democratic?"
It may seem crass to address a matter such as U.S. policy with Egyptians' entire country still in chaos, but there's an inescapable question here. Mark Goldberg raised it this morning in a blog post:
U.S. policy stipulates that military coups trigger an automatic cutoff of bi-lateral military assistance. That poses a dilemma for American policy makers: If this is indeed a coup (which seems to be the case) then it would be hard not to use the term “coup” to describe it. At the same time, the White House and most of Congress will probably shed no tears over Morsi’s ouster; and Washington does not want to undermine Egypt’s military at this time. Expect some fanciful linguistic contortions when asked whether or not this is, in fact, a “coup?”
Can aid be restored if the military goes ahead with early elections? Perhaps. But that does not obviate the U.S. from its statutory obligation to cancel its $1.3 billion aid to the Egyptian military. That represents the second largest aid package to any country in the world—only behind Israel's more than $3 billion. And those two huge amounts are connected: the military aid to Egypt stemmed from its peace deal with Israel (as well as its guardianship of the Suez Canal). Perhaps that's why some of Washington's pro-Israel leaders are asking things like: "What is a 'military coup'?" One answer, of course, would be: what just happened in Egypt. Let's see if the Obama administration will adhere to the laws that govern it and, at least for the meantime, cut off aid to the military that just overthrew a democratic leader.