My research associate, Alexander Brock, and research intern, Jessica Cusano, have written the below profile of newly nominated Egyptian presidential candidate Khairat al-Shater, affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party. I hope you find it useful.
Egypt’s latest addition to the pool of presidential candidates, Khairat al-Shater, is one that should come as no surprise. Al-Shater has been a prominent figure in Egypt due to his successful business endeavors in the furniture, textile, and software industries as well as to his position as the second in command and financier for the Muslim Brotherhood. An engineer by training and a socialist during Nasser’s presidency, al-Shater, who prefers the moniker “the Engineer,” is a multi-millionaire businessman and considered a frontrunner in the Egyptian presidential elections.
The Muslim Brotherhood has always wanted to implement principles of Islamic governance in Egypt and al-Shater bases his political agenda on the notion that Islam and the state are intrinsically linked. In a New York Times interview, al-Shater said he was drawn to the group because of its “comprehensiveness” that touches all aspects of society. In his view, the Muslim Brotherhood is an organization that interacts with Egyptian society through charity work, cultural programs, political outreach, and a strong economic presence.
The candidate stated in the same interview that results from the recent parliamentary elections prove that the Egyptian people want an Islamic state. He does not, however, believe this is incompatible with a democratic political system. Al-Shater appeals to the Islamic concept of shura (consultation) as a means of grounding representative democracy within an Islamic framework. The Engineer elaborated on this saying that democratic processes should be used to settle disputes, but that particular policies need to draw on Islamic principles. Liberal elements of Egypt’s political scene remain unconvinced and view this as mere posturing. They claim that the Brotherhood has already made moves to monopolize all the decision-making in post-Mubarak Egypt, making their interpretation of Islam the only acceptable one. They point to al-Shater’s part in ousting the reformist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh from the group (ironically for announcing his intention to seek the presidency).
Renaissance and Reform
At a conference last July, al-Shater also proposed ways to usher in a new era of freedom. This transition, which he calls a renaissance, must begin with building a state based on Islam, a task requiring the participation of all elements of society to succeed. Its first phase focuses on solving the economic challenges and the inchoate political system. The next phase involves citizens and local communities building alliances to rid society of its divisions, making their efforts more effective. The final phase is for the collective action of all the diverse elements of Egyptian society, once united in common purpose and sharing responsibility, to undertake political, social, and economic reforms. Al-Shater recognizes that this comes farther down the road, taking up to thirty years to bring to fruition.
Al-Shater claims that the Brotherhood allows for and encourages more representation for women than any other similar organization (presumably Salafist organizations, although he does not name any group in particular). In July, 2011, he attended a women’s conference for the Muslim Sisterhood, the first of its kind in nearly 60 years, in which he encouraged women’s advancement in society, using Islamic principles as a guide.
The FJP’s party platform states that it will support women to ensure a “balance between their duties and their rights,” as consistent with Islamic teachings. The FJP advocates female political participation in the election process and is also committed to implementing programs for divorced and widowed women, policies on which the candidate has yet to elaborate.
However, al-Shater is also a board member for a conservative Islamist study group that implements such rigid gender segregation rules as barring women from talking on cell phones with men other than family members. Members of the Brotherhood defend the candidate’s membership in this group, contending that he sits on the board without necessarily endorsing the group’s views. His position serves to create a direct line of communication with Islamist party members, speaking to the presidential hopeful’s political savvy.
Recognizing that Egypt’s youth played an integral role in starting the uprisings that ultimately ousted Mubarak, the FJP aims to improve the well-being of Egypt’s youth through revamping the education system. Al-Shater will likely seek to implement the FJP’s plans to boost Egypt’s educational system by doubling its allotted budget over time and increasing scientific research (ultimately up to 2.5% of total GDP). Within the next five years, the party aims to combat Egypt’s rampant illiteracy by increasing the number of kindergarten classrooms allowing for larger overall enrollment.
Part of the candidate’s educational platform appeals to restoring a healthy balance between job opportunities and level of education. A disincentive for pursuing a university education for many Egyptians is that it does not necessarily translate into gainful employment. Al-Shater is likely to promote educational reforms that tailor higher education to the practical skill-set that is necessary for the work force.
In a recent interview, the Engineer reiterated that Al-Azhar, as the traditional head of Sunni Islamic education, should be the ultimate reference point for moderate Islamic thought not only in Egypt but across the world. He also said Al-Azhar should exert a more overtly political role and should openly express its political views because “Islam is religion and state.”
In response to questions regarding FJP’s foreign policy, al-Shater articulated two guiding principles: first, that the FJP is open to cooperation with international groups across the political spectrum, as long as such cooperation is based on mutual interests and respect. In this regard, he has called on Western countries to assume the burden in helping Egypt rebuild because he views their historical role in the country as overwhelmingly negative. He stated, however, that foreign policy emphasis will be placed on Egypt’s relationship with its neighbors in the Middle East in an attempt to return Cairo to its traditional role as regional leader. On that point al-Shater said in an interview with the French publication Le Figaro, that Egypt’s responsibility as an Arab country is to support the Palestinian people in expressing their will, adding that he would put “pressure on Western nations who support Israel unconditionally” for what he sees as the latter’s continual violation of international law.
Second, despite his expressed solidarity with the Palestinian cause the former deputy supreme guide insists that his party is committed to all legally-binding international conventions, treaties, and obligations in Egypt’s portfolio. Of particular concern is the party’s view on the peace treaty with Israel, in addition to the controversial natural gas exporting deal with Israel. Al-Shater’s view is that amendments to either of these agreements would require a motion from the appropriate institutional channels, such as a referendum put to parliament. Absent any such motion, he says that his party is dedicated to upholding the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, an important policy stance that will weigh heavily in the election.
The presidential candidate’s discussions of foreign policy display an intimate connection between cultivating strong international relations and the party’s plans for reviving the economy. In his search for solutions to Egypt’s economic woes, al-Shater says that over the past year he has met with more than 30 ambassadors from all over the world, developing strong relationships with potential foreign investment partners.
On the diplomatic level, the Engineer noted in an interview on the al-Jazeera program ‘Without Borders’ that visits from and talks with western European countries have remained largely on the level of “getting to know” the Muslim Brotherhood. In contrast, countries like Japan, he says, seemed to be more understanding of and sensitive to the culture of the Egyptian people. This allowed for more productive talks. He noted that the Muslim Brotherhood is looking to benefit from studying countries such as Japan, Brazil, Korea, Turkey, and Indonesia to see how these countries were able to create an economic boom at home in less than a decade. Al-Shater would likely favor close ties with such countries, perhaps seeking to formalize economic relations between them on a government-to-government level as well as through private sector business endeavors.
Foreign NGO Presence
Al-Shater has also expressed his commitment to allowing foreign NGOs freedom to operate if he is elected president. During the recent row between Egypt and the United States over allegations that foreign NGOs were operating illegally, he and the Brotherhood released a statement to U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina reassuring the lawmakers that the Brotherhood would uphold this position. The FJP’s stance on NGOs is to set limits on foreign aid money so that it does not interfere with the sovereignty of the community but allows the NGOs enough flexibility to operate.
Undoubtedly, the economy will be the central component of al-Shater’s campaign and platform, given the crippling state of the Egyptian economy and the former deputy supreme guide’s strong business background.
Al-Shater has been the architect behind the economic policy of the Freedom and Justice party. He will in all likelihood continue the Mubarak regime’s policies of privatization, even though these policies have long, in the eyes of the Egyptian people, been tainted by the corrupt business practices and cronyism that were rampant under the deposed president.
Strong emphasis on the private sector, however, is likely to perpetuate problems of wealth distribution, resulting in continued high unemployment rates and a large portion of society living below poverty lines. The Brotherhood’s presidential candidate, in line with the FJP’s platform in general, seeks to address this problem by highlighting the importance of charity efforts, grounded in the Islamic concept of zakat (roughly, “charity”) and the institution of waqf (an endowment kept in a trust for charitable purposes). The party will also bolster the use of Islamic bonds (interest-free bonds), coupled with augmented investment in industry, agriculture, and information technology. The money generated through them will focus on cultivating people’s skills in particular crafts, enabling them to join the workforce.
Indeed, an economic revival in Egypt provides the entire foundation for the chapter on social justice in the FJP’s platform. Al-Shater advocates free market capitalism as the best system for generating wealth in the country. According to al-Shater, this kind of capitalism differs from typical “westernized” forms of capitalism because there is a link between generating wealth on the one hand, with obligations to social justice on the other.
A central component of the Engineer’s economic platform will be the contribution of foreign investment in the private sector. Bloomberg reported in late January that al-Shater held meetings with 14 European, American, and African investment managers, in which he sought to allay concerns surrounding the Freedom and Justice party’s economic policies. The article also notes that the meetings were set up through the Egyptian EFG-Hermes investment bank, whose private equity subsidiary has connections to Gamal Mubarak through his 18% ownership.
Despite the impression that such dubious connections might create, al-Shater seems unconcerned, insisting that policies of privatization, and the central role for foreign investors in such policies, are the best way to resuscitate the Egyptian economy. Their failure under Mubarak was not due to the policies themselves, but rather the way in which the system was rigged to benefit only the ruling family and those close to it.
The Engineer does not support the current cabinet’s negotiations with the IMF to secure a $3.2 billion loan stating, “We will only succeed if we depend on ourselves as Egyptians in building a strong economy for Egypt,” also pointing to the fact that details surrounding the terms of the loan remain vague. This will be difficult to reconcile, however, with his desire to attract foreign investors who are unlikely to inject capital into the unstable Egyptian economy. This theme of autonomy and self-reliance is evident in the FJP’s proposed solutions for the economic crisis in Egypt, in which “achieving self-sufficiency in strategic commodities, particularly of wheat and cotton” tops the list. The platform also calls for the review of the export subsidy program, which has benefited foreign recipients and placed the financial burden on Egyptians themselves.