As millions of anti-government protesters celebrated the overthrow of president Morsi, news geeks around the world began attacking each other the only way they know how: through coding, uploading, and the brutal cross-referencing of media sources.
Early last week – before many major news outlets caught whiff of the scent – a few people set to work on a Wikipedia page now titled “2013 Egyptian coup d’état”. Three days later, as millions of anti-government protesters celebrated the Egyptian military’s overthrow of president Mohammed Morsi, more people turned to the Internet. Within an hour, they were attacking each other in the only way that geeks know how to attack: through coding, uploading, and the brutal cross-referencing of media sources.
It began at 7.21pm on July 3 with a Wikipedia user located in Moscow, according to their IP address. As Egypt’s powerful General el Sissi announced he was terminating Morsi’s presidency, this user took to a list of current leaders who assumed power via coup d’état. Defined as a “violent or illegal seizure of power”; a coup d’état involves the sudden deposition of a ruling government by a small group (usually the military). Sissi’s move on Wednesday ticks many of these boxes, presumably leading the Russian to add Morsi’s successor to the Wikipedia post.
Unfortunately, the Russian's first choice – Maher Al-Beheiry – wasn’t exactly correct. We’ll forgive them, however, as they weren’t the only ones to screw up that little detail. About an hour later, when the international media successfully stopped shitting its pants, the same user went back to the post with a more accurate name: Adli Mansour. Yet even when Mansour was officially sworn in as Egypt’s interim president the next day, his status as Egypt’s official 2013 coup replacement was up for debate.
Exactly one hour after the Russian’s first post, Mansour’s name disappeared from the Wikipedia page. As well as removing the Egyptian president’s name, Jasmz, an unidentified user, also took it upon themselves to change the Wikipedia’s definition of a coup. A third user quickly hit back. “Awful theorizing,” they said. Mansour’s name was then added back onto the official Wikipedia list of power-hungry global leaders, where it would stay for just over half an hour… before being removed again.
What followed in the next few days was definitely not a first for Wikipedia. Since the open-source encyclopaedia launched in 2001, users have vied over what information is “correct”. The resulting onslaught - where users go back and forth for weeks, months, or years changing things - is sometimes dubbed Wikipedia Wars. While this is a fairly lame term in comparison to what’s happening in Egypt right now (where more than 30 people died on the weekend in a wave of backlash) there’s a certain aptness to the description.
Over the years, Wikipedia has tested out strategies to minimise editing conflict, such as creating “super” editors and shutting down controversial pages. (Such as the page for Caesar salad, contentious for its spelling and seriously disgusting anchovies, or The Death Star’s page, which bored and probably celibate Star Wars fans say lists an incorrect diameter.) These strategies are obviously not 100 per cent working if you consider Egypt’s coup d’état listing: there has been almost 100 Mansour-related additions and removals made on one page alone in the last five days.
Some cynics (we’ve all had them as University tutors) say these crowd-sourced editing wars prove Wikipedia as an unreliable source. Others aren’t so hardline. “We need to regard Wikipedia as more of an ongoing process than a final product,” says Margaret Simons, freelance journalist and director of the Centre for Advanced Journalism at The University of Melbourne. Simons says it’s “exciting” to contemplate Wikipedia wars: not only do they immortalise community debate, but they encourage us to challenge the official record of events.
This last bit is now being beautifully highlighted by the Mansour “coup d’état” battle. On the face of it, it’s ridiculous to dispute if Morsi’s exit comes under terminology so French it deserves to be served with brie and duck pâté. Then one starts questioning why so many media outlets, aid agencies, and global powers are deliberately using other words. The US government and media outlets, such as News Corp, AFP, and Reuters, are just some using words like “outsing”, “disposal”, and “removal”, almost as if Egypt’s ex-president were a pair of scungy undies that desperately needed to be changed.
Amro Ali, a Middle East analyst and PhD researcher at The University of Sydney, says the Egyptian military’s move has highlighted “a grey area”. Morsi may have been Egypt’s first democratically elected president following its 2011 revolution, but he was deeply unpopular with the people. “A coup d’état or military coup is usually seen as a top-down approach but this was almost bottom-up if you look at the [preceding people’s] protest,” says Ali. This means that less sexy labels, like democratic coup or soft coup, are perhaps more fitting.
This appears to be the main argument of most Wikipedia users. “Adly Mansour did not come in Egypt through a coup d’état. It was the Egyptian people’s will,” wrote one user on Friday, before adding a smiley face. “THIS IS NOT A COUP,” added another. Similar sentiments have erupted on social media since Wednesday. A new Facebook page, Not A Coup, now has more than 60,000 likes, and #notacoup is trending on Instagram and Twitter. There are also reports of anti-US placards in Tahrir Square challenging CNN’s ongoing use of the c-word.
Photo by Justin Wilkes
Despite this backlash, people continue to add Morsi’s name to online coup lists.“Whether or not it was the people’s will is irrelevant. It was a coup by definition,” wrote one person last Friday. Another raised an important issue: money. “Given the Egyptian army relies on over $1 billion dollars in US aid, labelling their actions as a coup d’état will void their eligibility to receive this aid.” Amro Ali clarifies this statement as such: “there is global hesitance to call this a coup because of Camp David”.
Signed by Egypt and Israel in 1978, the Camp David Accords essentially guaranteed peace between these two Middle Eastern powerbrokers. “However, there’s a clause in there that invalidates annual aid to Egypt if there’s a military coup,” says Ali. More than US$1.56 billion dollars is a significant motivation for Egypt’s military and the US, which sees Egypt as a litmus test for peace in the region. Thus, the US government has been avoiding “calling what’s happening a coup and saying the military should just hold early elections,” says Ali.
That the US government is pressuring General el Sissi to hold elections is indicative of something much more important than semantics. History tells us that every Egyptian lives or dies by their military’s support. (Hosni Mubarak, who is now awaiting trial following his despotic 30 year reign, was tellingly also a military commander.) In some ways, debating whether last Wednesday was a military coup or not ignores a more serious question: how far has Egypt moved past its military dictatorship since the 2011 revolution?
Some analysts, such as Foreign Policy’s Marc Lynch, have answered this question with some depressing sentiments. “Morsi is out. The military is in. But it doesn’t look good for anyone,” he wrote on the weekend. Others are being more cautious. Amro Ali says removing a democratically elected leader is “a dangerous precedent” but it should be viewed as an extension of the 2011 revolution. “The purpose of a revolution is to change the structure of society not just the players. This hasn’t happened yet in Egypt,” he says.
Despite their ongoing division over #coupnotcoup, some of Wikipedia’s users seem to have come to the same conclusion as Ali. On the Wikipedia page, 2013 Egyptian coup d’état – which just celebrated its one week in existence over the weekend – one lone user called Bless Sins summed this up. “It’s both a coup d'etat and revolution,” they said on Saturday. It's a statement with an interesting duality worth pondering; not just for Egypt but for our conception of truth. Naturally, the comment was removed by another frenzied Wikipedia user.
Follow Emilia on Twitter: @EmiliaKate