Frame Game

It’s Not a Coup, We Swear

Egypt’s generals just overthrew their president. Now they’re telling us it’s all about democracy.

Mohammed ElBaradei in 2006, when he was the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Egypt’s army has suspended the country’s constitution, surrounded the palace of its elected president, put him in military custody, cut him off from outside communications, arrested dozens of leaders of his party, and shut down its TV networks. It looks like a coup. But it isn’t, according to its supporters. These spokesmen include Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who led the ouster; interim president Adli Mansour; opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei; Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr; and Mohamed Tawfik, Egypt’s ambassador to the United States. Here are their explanations.

1. The people asked for it. The military “perceived” a mandate from “the movement and voices of the masses,” based on their street protests against President Mohamed Morsi, according to Sisi. “Such is the message received by the Armed Forces from every urban and rural corner of Egypt.” ElBaradei tells the New York Times, “We did not have a recall process. People ask for the recall process with their feet in Tahrir Square.” Mansour says he has come to power “through the trust of the revolutionaries in the square.” Amr says “this is not a military coup in any way. This was actually the overwhelming will of the people.” Tawfik tells Foreign Policy that “the people have made a very clear choice.” What about the election in which the people voted Morsi into office? “The ballot box is not a blank check,” says Tawfik. Of course not. A blank check is when you claim street protests as your authority to erase elections.

2. The people refused to compromise with the president. Morsi’s response to the protests “neither met nor conformed to the demands of the masses,” says Sisi. And who spoke for the masses in this purported dialogue? According to Morsi’s advisers, as paraphrased by the Times, Sisi “initially considered the concessions adequate but then returned to say that the political opposition had rejected them.” Morsi really was a bad president. But there was no time to wait for a plebiscite, so Sisi and the opposition skipped that part.

3. We represent everyone. At a press conference announcing the non-coup, Sisi stood with ElBaradei, other political leaders, and religious figures.  The general said the army had acted after “consultation with national and political powers and youths” in pursuit of “national reconciliation among all political powers.” ElBaradei says the non-coup’s supporters are “sending a message of reconciliation and an inclusive approach.” Amr agrees: “The idea is to have everybody participating in the transitional process.” What about Morsi and his supporters? They’ll get to participate, too, in some unspecified way, with no stated schedule for the prosecution of their leaders or restoration of their media outlets. But for now, their victory in the election has to be voided, since Morsi “declined” the military’s pre-coup “call for a national dialogue.”

4. We’re taking good care of the president. ElBaradei says army officials assure him that Morsi has been “treated with dignity and respect” during his detention. That’s sweet. Maybe someday Morsi will be allowed to speak to the public so we can find out whether that’s true.

5. We’re just keeping the peace. Why did the army arrest leaders of Morsi’s party and shut down its TV outlets? “The security people obviously are worried — there was an earthquake and we have to make sure that the tremors are predicted and controlled,” says ElBaradei. “They are taking some precautionary measures to avoid violence.” Tawfik agrees: “The military stepped in in order to avoid violence. … The Muslim Brotherhood, rather than conform to what the Egyptian people wanted, they chose to mobilize some of their supporters, and they chose to inflame the situation. The army had no option but to intervene, to save the country from a very serious situation.” You’ve heard of preemptive war? This was preemptive civil war.

6. The army won’t rule. “The Armed Forces … insist on distancing themselves from politics,” Sisi asserts. They won’t “assume power or rule.” That’s crucial, says Tawfik: “It’s not a coup, because the military did not take power.” Amr agrees: “There is no role, no political role whatsoever, for the military.” Unless you count the part where the generals ousted the president and replaced him with an acting president of their choice.

7. The arrests are legal. “There is no retribution, no acts of vengeance,” says Amr. “Nobody will be treated outside the law.” Then on what charges have Morsi and his party leaders been arrested? Answer: “Insulting the judiciary.” ElBaradei promises to make sure that “everybody who is being rounded up or detained, it is by order of the attorney general.” And who’s the new attorney general? The guy who prosecuted Islamists under then-dictator Hosni Mubarak.

8. We had to silence media outlets to protect the peace. ElBaradei says security officials explained to him that TV networks allied with Morsi were “calling for vengeance and murder and incitement to kill, so they have to shut them down for a while.” Also, officials claim to have found weapons in some of the raided stations, so of course their broadcasts had to be disabled. Sisi promises to “draw up a media code of ethics that provides for the freedom of the media and ensures professional rules, credibility, impartiality.” I can’t wait to read all about it in the state-approved media.

9. We’ll hold elections. Sisi says the new rulers will try “to expedite the approval of the draft electoral law” and “hold early presidential elections.” How early? Nobody’s saying. But don’t worry. If the elections don’t turn out the right way, the army will save the country once more. Government is too important to be left to the politicians.

William Saletan’s latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: