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Egypt's shadow hangs over Syrian opposition

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Syria's opposition hit deadlock on Friday in talks to elect a new leader, as the toppling of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood dealt a blow to its most influential faction.

The stalemate is preventing the main players in the Syrian National Coalition from reaching a deal acceptable to their Saudi and Qatari backers, who want to strengthen the opposition to counter an onslaught by President Bashar al-Assad's forces in Syria's civil war.

Sources in the Arab- and Western-backed coalition said the fate of an agreement hinges on the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, the only organized group in the opposition, which holds a balance of votes between a Saudi-backed and a Qatari-backed candidate.

But the group is reeling from this week's political blow its mother branch in Egypt, where the armed forces intervened to topple Islamist President Mohamed Mursi after mass street protests.

"The atmosphere is subdued. The Brotherhood in Egypt, and by extension in Syria and elsewhere, took a blow, but even their opponents feel that the Middle East lost a historic opportunity to convince Islamists to embrace democracy," a coalition official said in Istanbul, where the opposition is meeting.

Farouk Tayfour, the deputy leader of the Syrian Brotherhood, said the Egyptian army's removal of Mursi was a "mark of shame".

"The Egyptian revolution, which set a high example for other revolutions because it was peaceful, has entered a bad phase," he said.

SPENT FORCE?

Anas Ayrout, a leading cleric from the coastal city of Banias, said the Brotherhood in Syria now risks being a political has-been: "They have been antagonizing other Islamists and now they risk becoming an old card after having been defeated in Egypt."

But he said Islamists were nevertheless in a stronger position in Syria because they dominate armed rebel ranks which would take power if Assad was toppled.

"Politics is a product of power on the ground. An Egyptian scenario is difficult to repeat in Syria," Ayrout said.

More than 90,000 people have been killed since the Syrian revolt against four decades of rule by Assad and his late father erupted in March 2011, making it the bloodiest of the Arab Spring uprisings against entrenched autocrats.

The opposition's inability to unite has made Western countries reluctant to send weapons, even as Assad's forces recaptured territory in recent months and Washington and its European allies have vowed to aid the Syrian Free Army, which is fighting to overthrow him.

The coalition has been without a leader for months after its head quit over disagreement over potential talks with Assad's government. It aims to agree on a new unified leadership at its talks in Istanbul.

The main contenders for the presidency are secretary general Mustafa Sabbagh, a businessman seen as Qatar's pointman, and Ahmad Jarba, a tribal figure well connected with Saudi Arabia.

Both lack the majority votes needed to become leader of the 120-member coalition which has three power centers: the Brotherhood, the Sabbagh faction, and a Saudi-backed bloc that includes Jarba.

"The Brotherhood prefers Sabbagh but they are pragmatic and may not want to anger Saudi Arabia. They will probably throw the name of a compromise candidate in at the last minute," a coalition insider said.

Names that emerged as possible compromises include Ahmed Tumeh al-Khader a veteran opposition figure from the eastern province of Deir al-Zor, and Burhan Ghalioun, a professor based in Paris.

(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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