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The Wikipedia War Over Egypt's 'Coup'

In recent days, the protests and clashes over the Egyptian military's July 3 ouster of President Mohamed Morsy have transpired amid a parallel battle over semantics -- specifically whether the dramatic events of the past week constituted a "coup." Adopting the loaded word has very real implications for everything from the future of Egypt's fledgling democracy to the more than $1 billion in aid Washington sends to Cairo each year. And, as with past international crises, nowhere is the debate fiercer than in the dark netherworld of Wikipedia forums. The heated back-and-forth over the title for the English-language page "2013 Egyptian coup d'état" (at least that was the title at press time) is a case in point.

In arguing for a title change, some Wikipedians have asserted that it's hypocritical to call Egypt's first popular uprising in 2011 a "revolution" and second in 2013 a "coup," given that both required military intervention to realize popular demands for a change in political leadership. "To describe the events which allowed Morsi's rise to power as a 'revolution' but those which led to his downfall as a 'coup' is clearly biased and violates NPOV [Neutral point of view]," one user writes. "A number of the comments by those defending the use of 'coup' in the title and trying to shut down discussion frankly strike me as Wiki-lawyering."

Others have argued that it's biased not to call the overthrow of Morsy a coup: The "military removing the president and installing a new one (even if not military), suspending the constitution and seizing control over various state apparatus, e.g. state TV fits the normal definition of a coup, particularly since there doesn't seem to be anything in the constitution or other legal basis for these actions (to be clear I'm only referring to the legal aspect not the ethical or moral or whatever)," one Wikipedian points out. "It is called by the reliable media a coup d'état,deposing a president especially elected is a coup d'état ,and wikipedia only goes with neutral naming," another notes. "[P]ro-coup politicians always call it a revolution! But I think we should wait some days for the consensus of the medias, Google hits, etc. Then we decide. For the moment coup is the appropriate title," a third adds, a bit more cautiously. (The page also includes a robust discussion about whether major news outlets have been using "coup" without caveats or hedging by putting the word in quotes.)

Some have made more nuanced arguments. "The point is clearly debatable," concedes one user. "According to the strict definition given here this was a coup. However statements from the US and UK governments carefully avoided using the word 'Coup'. Given that US military aid would be at risk if a coup had taken place, coupled with the fact that both the US and UK have refrained from referring to it as a coup we can infer that the word 'coup' is politically very sensitive here and it may be best to avoid using it and use the term 'military intervention' instead as the word used in the US and UK government statements."

And still others have maintained that Egypt is a special case -- one where the standard definition of a coup doesn't apply. "I think it's more accurate to call the page 'Impeachment of Mohamed Morsi' instead of '2013 Egyptian coup d'état,'" one user suggests. "If CNN and BBC call it something, does this mean it has to be the right one? The guy abused his power as president of Egypt so he was replaced by the military with the head of the Constitutional Court as acting president with an early election to be scheduled soon."

Another user echoes this sentiment, explaining, "What's happening in Egypt is untraditional and the word coup has usually been associated with being undemocratic. The untraditional thing about this coup is that it happened following millions of protests that asked for the removal of the president since there was no parliament to vote for his removal or impeachment.... My point is this is, contrary to the usual, a democratic coup due to massive protests or a Revolution."

Then there is the appeal to the wisdom of the crowd -- or to search engine optimization, depending on your reading. "I suggest that the page be renamed something like Egyptian Revolution of 2013," a Wikipedian offers. "More than 31,000 hits on Google News for 'second Egyptian revolution.'"

For what it's worth, the debate isn't limited to English-speaking Wikipedia users. The corresponding Arabic page on Egypt's political upheaval is entitled, "The coup of July 3, 2013 in Egypt." And the first heading under the corresponding discussion frantically reads, "Revolution or Coup?!"

As they say, history is written by the victorious Wikipedia editors.

Marya Hannun is a freelance journalist and Ph.D. student in Georgetown's Islamic Studies program.

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