When is a military coup not a military coup? Whenever, so it would seem, an administration in Washington wants to say it’s something else.
Although, as Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank observes, “call[ing] the overthrow [of the Egyptian government] a ham sandwich won’t make it any less of a coup,” Washington has preferred to refer to the events in Egypt with such euphemisms as “a transition to democracy” (President Obama), “a complex and difficult issue” (White House press secretary Jay Carney) and “a very fluid situation” (State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki).
It’s anything but a coup — the reason being, of course, Section 508 of the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act, which specifies that no aid from the United States be given “to any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree.”
Since the American government deems continued aid to Egypt from the United States to be crucial, and since getting Congress to reword the Foreign Assistance Act would be a slow and uncertain process, the path of least resistance is the one of denial. Do the dictionaries, such as my Webster’s New Collegiate, define a coup as “a sudden decisive exercise of force whereby the existing government is subverted,” which is exactly what the Egyptian army’s action was? Then let the dictionaries be damned.
Perhaps the administration should appeal to history, because as a matter of record, the first political coup ever to have been called that did not subvert an existing ruler at all. Rather, it was staged by one. If you have the patience to listen, here’s the story.
When, in 1610, Louis XIII of France succeeded his assassinated father, the popular Henri IV, he was only 8 years old and the country was ruled by his Italian mother,
Marie de’ Medici,
acting as regent. Even after Louis reached his majority at the age of 13, Marie de’ Medici continued to be the power behind his throne along with her close adviser, her fellow Florentine Concino Concini. Concini, however, was corrupt and power hungry, and he alienated both the French nobility and the general public. Moreover, the young Louis disliked and feared him. He had his own favorite at court — his hunting companion, the Duke of Luynes — and together they decided, as we might say today, that Concini should be terminated.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org