Wealth of Muslim Brotherhood's presidential hopeful worries some Egyptians

McClatchy NewspapersApril 4, 2012 

CAIRO — The Muslim Brotherhood's decision to nominate a prominent business tycoon, Khairat el Shater, for Egypt's presidency has raised concerns that another economically powerful dictatorship is about to take over the politically volatile nation.

Several of the country's economists said they believe el Shater's nomination by the Muslim Brotherhood's political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, looks a lot like the merger of power and money that happened during the 30-year rule of toppled President Hosni Mubarak.

"No one knows anything about the Muslim Brotherhood's businesses and assets, they are a black box. We don't know the reality of el Shater's businesses and fortune," said Rashad Abdo, a professor of economics at the Arab Academy for Banking and Financial Sciences.

"Not knowing or being able to estimate the real economic power of the Muslim Brotherhood is a very worrisome matter," Abdo said. "They spent frightening amounts of money on their propaganda prior to parliamentary elections and no one knows the source of those funds."

He pointed to "similarities between the policies of the Muslim Brotherhood and Mubarak's National Democratic Party," whose members often were wealthy businessmen believed to have benefited from government policies. Abdo noted that the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's best-organized political group, already dominates the country's Parliament and the constituent assembly charged with writing a new constitution.

He called el Shater "another version of Ahmed Ezz," a steel tycoon who was Hosni Mubarak's most economically powerful supporter. Ezz was detained after Mubarak was forced from office and is now in jail on a list of corruption, fraud and money laundering charges.

El Shater made his money in a range of businesses that included furniture, textiles, car manufacturing and banking. He was regularly detained and imprisoned under Mubarak, whose regime called him the outlawed Brotherhood's top financier and money launderer.

In 2006, el Shater along with 40 top members of the movement were arrested and charged with planning a parade held by dozens of masked Muslim Brotherhood students at al Azhar University. All the defendants were acquitted in a civilian court.

But in 2007, Mubarak ordered the defendants retried before a military tribunal, which handed them varying jail terms in April 2008. El Shater received a sentence of seven years, the longest military sentence ever handed to a Muslim Brotherhood member.

In addition, el Shater's and his family's possessions were confiscated and his bank accounts frozen. Government sources valued the confiscated and frozen assets at $13 million, a fraction, economists estimate, of his real fortune.

But the real size of el Shater's fortune remains a mystery, as does his role in the Muslim Brotherhood. He's declined to speak with reporters since his nomination last weekend. The first round of presidential voting is scheduled for May 23.

High-ranking members of the Brotherhood and the Freedom and Justice Party defended his nomination. Mohamed Morsi, the party's head, called his nomination "the chance to accomplish the civilized project of building the new Egypt."

"It will be the development train for this nation," Morsi said.

But the image of a wealthy man becoming the president backed by a movement that also controls Parliament and the other levers of power unnerves others.

"We revolted against a regime of corrupt businessmen and now we are being asked to vote for a mysterious businessman to become president," said Muhammad AbdelMeged, a 27 year-old information technology worker. "No one knows how he became that rich. All we know is that he spent long years in jail, and he still owns businesses worth millions."

Even those who worked with the Muslim Brotherhood in the last elections are voicing concern that the Brotherhood is becoming too powerful.

"They started with a Parliament majority, then controlling the constitutional assembly, and now they are seeking both the prime minister and presidential posts," said Mohamed Sami, the head of the Karama Party, which was part of an alliance the Brotherhood led during Egypt's parliamentary elections. "They are planning to seize all positions of power.

"It reminds me of the National Democratic Party," Sami said, referring to the party headed by Mubarak. "In spite of all that the brotherhood suffered under Mubarak, they did not learn from history."

(Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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