A Coup Is a Coup — Even If We Like Outcome

Calling the Overthrow of the Egyptian Government What It Is

Playing Games With Words: President Obama referred to the Egyptian coup as “a transition to democracy.”
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Playing Games With Words: President Obama referred to the Egyptian coup as “a transition to democracy.”

By Philologos

Published July 21, 2013, issue of July 26, 2013.
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The appointed terminator was the head of the Royal Guard, Baron de Vitry. His official orders were to throw Concini into prison; yet when the latter, surrounded by the Guard on a bridge over the Seine, cried out for help, he was immediately killed for resisting arrest. Louis XIII personally congratulated his murderers — “Grand merci á vous, á cette heure je suis roi,” he said to them, “A hearty thanks to you, at this moment I’ve become king” — and Concini’s body was taken from its grave by a Parisian mob, dragged through the streets and strung up by its heels from the Pont Neuf. As for the Queen Mother, she was banished to a castle in Blois. Pardoned for her connivance with Concini in 1621, she commissioned the artist Peter Paul Rubens, then at the height of his fame, to paint her life story. The 24 sumptuous canvases he produced hang today in the Louvre and have made Marie de’ Medici known to more people than is her son, who reigned quite successfully until his death in 1643.

We’re getting there; didn’t I warn you to have patience? In 1646, the son of a Welsh clergyman named James Howell, a travel writer, historian, lexicographer, and secretary to the British Privy Council, wrote a biography of Louis XIII There, describing Louis’s deft disposal of Concino Concini, he called it a coup d’état, a “stroke of state,” probably borrowing a French phrase for it that had already been coined, although it has not been traced to any known French source.

It was in France, in any case, that the expression first took root, being applied afterward to such disparate events as Napoleon’s overthrowing of the revolutionary Directory in 1799, Louis Bonaparte’s dismissal of the National Assembly in 1851 and General Georges Boulanger’s near rise to dictatorial rule in 1889. In the course of the 20th century, it entered the vocabulary of dozens of languages in the sense of an illegal seizure or perpetuation of power involving the use or threat of violence, sometimes translated, as in the Spanish golpe de estado, and sometimes not, as in the Japanese kudeta.

In English, “coup d’état” has been shortened to just plain “coup,” which can be qualified by an adjective in combinations like “a military coup,” “a presidential coup” and “a palace coup”; if used nonpolitically, it denotes any surprising and well-executed maneuver.

Did the Egyptian army stage a military coup? Of course it did.

A coup, as Louis XIII was the first to demonstrate, doesn’t always have to be the work of the bad guys. Congress should have thought of that before approving Section 508.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


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