Was that a coup or not? That is the question people and governments across the Middle East have been contemplating since Egypt’s military capitalised on a popular uprising to oust - and detain - the country’s democratically-elected President, Mohamed Morsi.
The answer to the question has less to do with what actually happened in Cairo than with other Arabs’ own views on political Islam and democracy. Across the region, governments, politicians and extremists are spinning the events in Egypt to suit their own narratives, whether it is to argue that democracy can’t be trusted or that Islamists can’t be trusted with democracy - or that the Western powers don’t trust Arabs with democracy, except when it produces Western-leaning governments.
The crisis in Egypt has ironically made bedfellows of regional foes. Saudi Arabia and Syria both welcomed Morsi’s ouster, viewing it as a blow to the Muslim Brotherhood’s brand of political Islam. Never mind that Saudi Arabia, the most conservative religious country in the region, is working to overthrow the staunchly secular regime of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.
Assad used the coup in Egypt to rally support for his war against those trying to topple him, arguing that his enemies are a more extreme version of the Muslim Brotherhood. “What is happening in Egypt is essentially the fall [of the] governing system, which the Muslim Brotherhood attempted to advocate regionally,” he said.
Arab monarchies like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), meanwhile, are relieved by Morsi’s fall because they fear a challenge to their absolute power from a homegrown Islamist movement inspired by the Brotherhood. The UAE’s official news agency praised Egypt’s armed forces for being “a strong shield” and protectors of the people. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah lauded the military for saving Egypt from a “dark tunnel.”
A notable exception is Qatar, which views Morsi’s ouster with alarm, not because it represents a defeat of democracy, but because the tiny emirate has long backed the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar’s argument is that if given a chance to rule, the Brotherhood would self-moderate and succeed in governance. Qatari diplomat Nasser al-Khalifa tweeted: “[Shame] on Western governments that till now still silent on the crime of coup d’etat that imprisoned an elected president!”
For many, the crisis in Egypt is a chilling reminder that powerful militaries across the region are capable of taking power away from political Islam. It was no surprise that in Turkey, currently ruled by the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan quickly denounced the ouster, saying: “No matter where or against whom, coups are damaging and inhuman, and directed against the people, the national will and democracy.” And he should know: Turkey has suffered more coups than any other country in the region.
If the Brotherhood took comfort from Turkish sympathy, it can also draw reassurance that military coups only delayed the inevitable rise of the AKP. There are lessons, too, to be learned from the Turkish experience: the coups forced the AKP to moderate its worldview and widen its support base, making it the country’s dominant political force.
In Tunisia - the birthplace of the Arab Spring - Ennahda, the dominant political party, said it rejected “what happened [in Egypt] and believes legitimacy is represented by President Morsi and no one else.”
More extreme Islamists across the region are having an “I told you so” moment. For decades, militant Islamists have ignored calls to give up their arms and join the political mainstream, arguing that they would never be given a fair shake. For proof, they have pointed to Algeria and Palestine, where Islamists won free elections, only to have legitimate power taken away from them by undemocratic means. Egypt allows them to update their scepticism.
In a statement, al-Qaeda’s North African branch said: “The youth of Egypt should learn that the price for applying principles on the ground is a mountain of body parts and seas of blood, because evil must be killed and not shown mercy.” In the Rorschach test that is Egypt, trust al-Qaeda to see only bloodstains.

The writer is NBC’s correspondent in the Middle East. This article has been reprinted from TIME magazine.