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July 17, 2013

Morsi Overthrow Divides Mideast, Deepens Turmoil

by Henry Ridgwell

The overthrow of democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi by Egypt's military has prompted strong reaction from across the Middle East. Analysts say events in Cairo have increased tension in a region already gripped by turmoil.

With Egypt's ouster of the Islamist president in the limelight, Syria's brutal civil war has been out of the headlines in recent days.

But President Bashar al-Assad is using Egypt's crisis as propaganda, said Michael Clarke, director of the Royal United Services Institute in London.

"President Assad, of all the rulers in the Middle East, is saying 'Look, this proves it,'" he said. "I'm a secularist ruler. Let the religious nutcases in - like these people who are actually controlling the areas of Homs and Aleppo - and this is what you'll get."

But that argument may backfire on President Assad, argued Nadim Shehadi of the policy analysis institute, Chatham House.

"For him this is also a double-edged sword because if Islamists are on the wane, then his main message of him being the only alternative will also be weakened," he said.

In Libya, uprisings swept Moammar Gadhafi from power in 2011. Now the Muslim Brotherhood's Justice and Construction Party has become the most powerful bloc in parliament. But Libya's Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, an independent, reacted with caution to the events in Cairo.

"Political choices are up to the Egyptian people, and we shall support whatever they will choose," he said.

Libya continues to battle armed militias which threaten to derail the path to peaceful democracy, said Michael Clarke of RUSI.

"This wheel will keep on turning," he said. "It's taking its second revolution in Egypt. It's going through a second revolution - a revolution of the wheel - in Libya. And it will keep on happening in other parts of the Middle East."

Tunisia's ruling Ennahda party is an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood. But party officials say Tunisia's consensual approach of using cross-party committees to draw up the constitution has won support.

Turkey has been among the most vocal critics of the Egyptian military. Analysts say its ruling AK party has lost an Islamist ally in Morsi. Ankara's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was unequivocal, saying, "President Morsi, who took the helm after democratic elections, was ousted in a coup by the Egyptian army."

In contrast, Arab powers including Saudi Arabia and Jordan have welcomed events in Cairo, said Michael Clarke of RUSI.

"To see Morsi fail, to see him brought down, is barely disguised delight for them. It's a bit of a humiliation for Qatar who has supported the Morsi government and put quite a lot of money into it," he said.

In the midst of these regional power struggles, Israel is watching events in Egypt cautiously, said Nadim Shehadi of Chatham House.

"You have the military coming to power, with the military being masters at exploiting the Arab-Israeli conflict to maintain themselves in power," he said. "So they should be wary of that too."

Analysts warn there is a growing fear that unilateral action by Israel against any perceived threat could ignite this volatile region.