Muslim Brotherhood candidate Khairat el Shater focused on Egypt's economy

McClatchy NewspapersApril 9, 2012 

CAIRO — The Muslim Brotherhood's presidential candidate — a self-made multimillionaire tycoon — on Monday emphasized free-market capitalism and reducing corruption as pillars of his long-term platform toward Egypt's "renaissance."

Khairat el Shater, 62, dwelled on private-led economic reform more than any other topic at his first news conference since he announced his candidacy, which was controversial because the Brotherhood earlier had vowed not to contest the presidential polls, which open next month.

The powerful group's endorsement makes Shater an instant front-runner in a race crowded with fellow Islamists as well as former-regime types, and he appeared keen to show that his business acumen makes him just the candidate to overhaul Egypt's revolution-battered economy and lure back wary foreign investors.

That, he argued, would in turn address wider social ills such as high crime rates and widespread unemployment, which only worsened under some 50 years of state stewardship of the economy.

"It's very important that, within the current gap we're facing now, to depend on local, Arab and foreign investments in development programs," Shater said. "Some people with ideological agendas might say, 'Engineer Khairat supports privatization and private sector?' I say there is no other alternative for Egyptians except to focus sharply on financing a great deal of development projects outside the state budget."

Shater made his fortune in ventures ranging from software startups to a chain of furniture stores, directing his companies even from his prison cell during a total of 12 years of detention in the past two decades. On Monday, he wore the relaxed air of an executive who'd be comfortable in Silicon Valley, dressed in an open-collared shirt and blazer; his campaign staffers, by contrast, were clad in stuffy dark suits and red ties.

Shater was the architect of the economic initiatives espoused by the Brotherhood's spinoff political party, Freedom and Justice, which has called for anti-corruption measures, better regulations to break up monopolies, broad-based private investment and a wider umbrella of nongovernmental support to wean Egyptians from the decrepit welfare-state model.

Egyptian economists have offered tentative approval for what they've called a sound and sophisticated economic platform, though worries remain about the mechanisms for implementing such ambitious proposals.

The main concern is that a CEO-turned-president such as Shater would be prone to the same cronyism and sweetheart deals that were hallmarks of deposed President Hosni Mubarak's regime, especially in recent years when his son Gamal essentially ran the country along with a tight circle of millionaire businessmen. The key members of that cabal are now languishing in prison on corruption and other charges.

Wael Gamal, a Cairo-based author and analyst who focuses on the Egyptian economy, said it was common knowledge that the Brotherhood maintained relationships with Mubarak-era businessmen, inviting them to official events and even quoting them in the group's publications. He said trusting too much in the Brotherhood's chief financier ran the risk of a return to the same old crony capitalist model, only this time with Islamist cover.

"The problem with Khairat el Shater is that he belongs to the business sector, which is the very same sector that corrupted Egypt," Gamal said. "Just because his companies were a success doesn't mean that he can lead a country. There's a great difference between the mechanisms of leading a company and of taking care of the macroeconomics."

Another concern is the ongoing power struggle between Egypt's entrenched military rulers and the ascendant Brotherhood, which is playing out not only in the presidential race, but also in the drafting of a new constitution and the fraught transition from military to civilian authority.

The Brotherhood seeks to curtail the powers of the military, which controls large sectors of the economy, while the ruling generals have indicated that they won't budge until they receive assurances from incoming leaders that their interests would be protected. The impasse, economists say, could stall the execution of the first stages of the Brotherhood's recovery plan and keep away potential investors.

"They're not concerned with the Freedom and Justice Party per se, but they're concerned that the Brotherhood has not yet assumed control of the economy, which continues to deteriorate," said Magda Kandil, the director of the Egyptian Center for Economic Studies.

"Thus far, it stays at the level of good statements and slogans, but there is still a lot of bickering behind the scenes," she added. "This is what makes investors worried. They want a resolution of the power clash."

Shater, speaking eloquently and without notes Monday at the news conference, acknowledged that his party's economic strategies would take years to bring to fruition. His sleek PowerPoint presentation included plans that stretched all the way to 2025.

He spent several minutes enumerating the myriad problems that plague the Egyptian economy: Debts nearly double the entire budget, a budget deficit reportedly forecast at 9 percent of economic output and the old regime's legacy of "organized theft," which robbed the country of billions of dollars.

Another problem, he said, is that the economy is too dependent on three main revenue streams: the Suez Canal, tourism and remittances from Egyptians abroad. Shater proposed diversifying to include industrial and agricultural projects; he mentioned in passing that a Brotherhood delegation had visited Norway recently to study the Scandinavians' lucrative fishing industry.

Shater's pro-business stumping would've sounded familiar to Americans who are watching their own presidential race take shape, except for his frequent references to the overarching "Islamic project" that he vowed would put Egypt on the path to recovery.

At one point, he recounted a story that has Islam's Prophet Muhammad saying that a Muslim holding a palm shoot on Judgment Day should go ahead and plant it, even if the end of the world was nigh.

"As you know, that plant will take months and years to grow," Shater said, "but the prophet was sending a message that the Muslim must be productive and busy in building and developing, no matter the circumstances around him."

(Special correspondent Omnia Al-Desoukie contributed to this article.)

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