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If Thailand is a coup, why wasn’t Egypt?

Thai army soldiers stand guard at the main entrance of the pro-government ''Red Shirts'' rally site after they shut it down and cleared protesters from the site, after Thailand's army chief announced that the armed forces were seizing power, on the outskirts of Bangkok on May 22, 2014. NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images

On Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry released a sternly worded statement on Thailand's military takeover, explicitly labeling it a coup. Here's how it began:

"I am disappointed by the decision of the Thai military to suspend the constitution and take control of the government after a long period of political turmoil, and there is no justification for this military coup."

That's a remarkable contrast to the considerable lengths Kerry went to avoid describing last year's military takeover in Egypt as a coup. Remember the comments he made during an interview on a Pakistani TV show shortly after it happened?

"The military was asked to intervene by millions and millions of people, all of whom were afraid of a descendance into chaos, into violence. And the military did not take over, to the best of our judgment so, so far. To run the country, there's a civilian government. In effect, they were restoring democracy."

The Obama administration ultimately side-stepped the decision on whether Egypt was a coup or not entirely. There seems to be a disconnect there, and it clearly wasn't lost on reporters at Thursday's State Department briefing

So what exactly is different about Thailand and Egypt? According to Jay Ulfelder, an American political scientist who focuses on political instability, not as much as the State Department hopes.

"State is assiduously resisting efforts to draw it into explicitly comparing the two cases, and with good reason," Ulfelder explains. "Under all the major definitions used by political scientists, both today's events in Thailand and last summer's events in Cairo qualify as successful coups. So based on the facts alone, there's no coherent way to conclude that the two cases wind up in different categories."

Coup is dirty word, as Thailand's military are well aware ("This is definitely not a coup," one army official told the AP on Tuesday). But while academics don't totally agree on the details, Ulfelder points out that most academic definitions of a coup have three main points: 1) The use or threat of force 2) by people inside the government or security forces 3) with the aim of seizing control over national political authority. Sometimes a fourth point is added to these: 4) by illegal or extra-constitutional means. After the attempts of Thursday, Thailand meets at least three of the categories, and the events in Egypt last year meet all.

There's another big factor here of course: Foreign aid. Section 508 of the Foreign Assistance Act says that the U.S. is required to suspend foreign aid to nations that undergo a military coup, though the language of that law leaves it open to interpretation. Thailand is a major non-NATO ally for the U.S., but receives nowhere near the $1.5 billion in foreign aid that Egypt does – "Not even a fraction," according to Murray Hiebert, Deputy Director of Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. After 2006's Thai military coup, the U.S. eventually suspended just $24 million in military aid. Kerry's statement says only that the U.S. will review its aid to Thailand, which Hiebert notes may be an attempt to leave itself options should the situation in Thailand, still evolving, shift.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.

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