To coup or not to coup: Wikipedia's battling it out over Egypt

Quickly after the overthrow of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt, the most important issue for a lot of political commentators and observers became semantics. Was this a coup, or not?

The seemingly technical question was, of course, loaded with relevance because of $1.2 billion worth of US aid hanging in the balance. But now, the battle has shifted to an even murkier and tangled stage – that of a Wikipedia page.

Before even major news outlets had gotten a whiff of the event, a Wikipedia contributor made a page entitled “2013 Egypt coup d’etat” three days before Morsi’s overthrow. After the page was flooded with visits, the ‘talk’ page (where contributors wrestle over details and inaccuracies) was besieged by debate – was this a coup or a revolution? (The debate is still ongoing here.) Hundreds of users have been debating and tweaking the page for the past week, armed with academic citations, media reports and Oxford's definitions.

A screenshot of the 2013 Egypt coup d'etat page. Image via Wikipedia

A screenshot of the 2013 Egypt coup d'etat page. Image via Wikipedia

One Wikipedia user favoured calling it a popular revolution. “The world saw that the Egyptian people have protested for five days, and they had only demand. The stepping down of the president. So obviously it is a popular revolution, not a coup," he pointed out.

Other users have pointed out the hypocrisy of calling the 2011 overthrow of Mubarak a revolution, but insisting that the overthrow of Morsi is a coup, “given that both required military intervention to realise popular demands for a change in political leadership,” as one talk page entry says.

Others, armed with multiple citations, are favouring 'coup'. “The military removing the president and installing a new one…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,” says one Wikipedian.

Egypt’s coup (or not) is only the most recent – and relevant – case of how Wikipedia serves as a sort of modern battleground for historians. Rather than looking as Wikipedia as an inherently “flawed” product because of this cacophony of inputs, it can be viewed as being a particularly befitting recording of modern history, given how many points of views are finding prominence in a post-digital world.

The other historically relevant case of ‘Wikipedia Wars’ (as they’re known amongst users) was the US election between George W Bush and John Kerry – both pages had to be ‘locked down’ by the website because of the constant back-and-forth on the candidates’ histories.

Besides removing the predominance of popular opinion, Wikipedia’s debates also ensure debate. This debate, of course, isn’t always about coups and US presidential candidates. Sometimes they’re about Ceasar Salad. A slow-motion edit war has been going on now for two years about the correct spelling of Caesar Salad (Caesar, Cesar, or Cesare), its place of origin and the most burning question of all – if you add tomatoes, is it still a Caesar Salad?

So while Wikipedia can serve as a great platform for debate, like many others, it ca slowly collapse under its own weight. One user on the ‘Talk page’ of the 2013 Egypt coup d’etat entry diplomatically summed up this weekend: “It’s both a coup d’etat and a revolution.” But this comment was soon removed by another Wikipedia contributor.

Updated Date: Jul 08, 2013 15:34 PM

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