Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat talks to Muslim Brotherhood presidential hopeful Khairat El-Shater | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat – Khairat El-Shater is one of the Muslim Brotherhood’s top strategists and a chief financier who has now taken up the mantle as the Freedom and Justice party’s presidential candidate. Educated as an engineer, El-Shater is a multi-millionaire, reportedly owning a network of businesses in Egypt, including investment companies, manufacturers and a furniture chain. He spent 12 of the past 20 years in prison under former president Mubarak’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. He was released from prison following the 25 January Revolution, being granted a full pardon by the ruling military. El-Shater is touting his “Renaissance Project”, aimed at modernizing corrupt and incompetent institutions, including education, agriculture, transportation and health care. In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, El-Shater discussed his presidential nomination, the current situation in Egypt and his hopes for the future of the country.

The interview is as follows:

[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have announced your candidacy for the Egyptian presidency. Why do you think the Egyptian electorate should vote for you?

[El-Shater] Firstly, I did not nominate myself; rather the Freedom and Justice party and the Muslim Brotherhood have taken the decision to nominate me for the presidency. This is very different than any other figure thinking of standing for the presidency [as an independent], because as the candidate of the [Freedom and Justice] party, I have embraced the management of the programs and views that the party has put forward to create a new renaissance for modern Egypt. The [Freedom and Justice] party and the [Muslim Brotherhood] organization are behind me, as well as all the political forces that have adopted the [renaissance] project…therefore this is something that distinguishes me from any other candidate at the presidential elections.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] You mean to say that voters will be voting for the Muslim Brotherhood as much as for you personally?

[El-Shater] It is not about electing the Muslim Brotherhood or Khairat El-Shater, rather electing the Renaissance project…to build a modern Egypt, politically, economically, socially, culturally and indeed in all other areas of life. We are talking about two points…firstly, there is the [renaissance] project, and secondly there is the conviction that this candidate – and the party behind him – can truly implement this project.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] The constitutional requirements call on the President of Egypt to avoid political or partisan affiliation. In this case, isn’t it true that the electorate should be more concerned about the presidential candidates themselves, rather than the parties supporting them?

[El-Shater] Our program is based on transforming the presidency into a general framework institution; this will harmonize the operations between the government, parliament and the presidency…and which in the end will form a political regime whose ultimate goal is to develop Egypt.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you revealed this project, and your intentions, to the concerned parties in Egypt?

[El-Shater] Yes…we have a social renaissance project and we have spoken about this on a number of occasions with various political forces in Egypt. This [project] is something that we put forward every now and then, and we are putting this forward now, and are opening the door to amending and developing this [project]. Following the presidential elections, we will continue in this regard, until this [project] represents the vision of the entire Egyptian people, not the vision of a single party or organization. This is because this [project] will be implemented by the people themselves, not by any single party…therefore we must promote this idea and convince the greatest number of citizens of this, and this can only be achieved by receiving feedback and developing this vision as best we can.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are you keen to be the new president of Egypt or was your candidacy mandated by the Muslim Brotherhood?

[El-Shater] I am passionate with regards to any mandate.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about those who say that your candidacy is nothing more than a suicide mission?

[El-Shater] I am aware that this is a suicide mission…however I am approaching this from a religious approach; we – as Muslims – are working to serve our country, because our understanding of religion requires this. Our religion requires us to work to reconstruct and develop the land and meet the needs of the people and solve their problems. For us, that is the entire issue. When a person becomes a decision-maker he must be passionate, otherwise this will [also] reflect on his view of religion.

Personally, I had imposed a limit on myself, namely that I would retire from any administrative work by the age of 60, this is because I began working in public affairs since I was 16 years old, and I am well aware of the importance of providing opportunities to allow a new generation to emerge. I am also aware of the extent of the work that is required in managing or governing Egypt in general. I said that I would retire at 60, however I was in prison when I reached this age, so I could not announce my retirement whilst I was in prison, so that nobody would think that I had retreated or weakened or surrendered as a result of imprisonment. Therefore I took the decision to postpone this [announcement] until after I was released from prison, and then the revolution took place and the country required everybody with experience in administration or work or the economy or politics…therefore we must all cooperate until we rescue Egypt’s sinking ship. We must also work together to implement our new renaissance, and ensure that Egypt is ranked amongst the developed nations, providing an important cultural model; therefore there is no room for retreat or surrender!

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What are the reasons that led the Muslim Brotherhood to withdraw from its initial pledge not to field any presidential candidates?

[El-Shater] The initial decision that was taken was based on particular reasons; a key issue was that the political scene in post-revolutionary Egypt represents a new historic turning point, and we – prior to the revolution – were objective regarding the issue of opposition. This is because there were a number of restrictions imposed upon us whilst they also attempted to distort our public reputation; however this did not convince the people who continued to support us, whether in parliament or employment or student unions etc. This was despite the media campaign against us which was present in most Egyptian and Arab media outlets. This was not just with regards to the general public, but also the elites and people of influence, domestically or abroad, as many institutions would say “the Muslim Brotherhood are dangerous” and “the Muslim Brotherhood are the enemy”, and when someone is told this again and again over 30 years – whether we are talking about the army or security apparatus – then you will require a period of time to win trust and build bridges with the general public. These are all active features [in society], and they must be present in the governing regime.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Some people are calling for a parliamentary system to be implemented in Egypt, which is different from the system of rule outlined in the 1971 constitution. What is your view?

[El-Shater] Our preference, regarding the constitution, would be for a parliamentary system, however it is difficult to transition to such a system in one go…so there must be a mixed system. Simply speaking, as Egyptian, we have had enough of the harsh authorities of the president of the republic…and we reached an unprecedented state of tyranny, which led to corruption and backwardness; therefore we want to minimize the powers of the president. Our view is that it is better to have a place in government than to hold the presidency. We took a strategic decision not to compete on all fronts, but to possess some legislative power to allow us to express our views, as well as to help in drafting laws and regulations that serve the Renaissance project. At the same time, we wanted to have an effective role in a broad-based coalition government so that we would have the capability to implement our programs, because without this the process would remain within parliament. Legislation is very important, however without executive authority one’s popularity would be eroded over time, because this means we would not be able to actively engage with and resolve people’s problems, nor would we be able to begin our special Renaissance project. Therefore we focused on these two vital pats; namely a presence in the legislative body and a presence in government. However we were ultimately prevented from forming a government – even a coalition government – and we were not given any logical or strong justifications for this. We announced that if we were allowed to form a broad-based coalition government, we would refrain from nominating a presidential candidate…however we did not receive any response to this, therefore we took the decision to change our position and put forward a presidential candidate due to the necessity of our having a presence – even a partial one – in the executive branch. This means that if the [Ganzouri] government problem had been solved, we would not have changed our position not to nominate a presidential candidate.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Since you have brought this issue up, isn’t it true that the idea of a broad-based coalition government was also rejected by the revolutionary youth and other political forces?

[El-Shater] There have been some changes. In the beginning, we stressed that there must undoubtedly be relative security and economic stability during the transitional stage, but there was more security deterioration than expected. The other issue is that we saw that the economic situation was deteriorating further and further, along with the country’s cash reserves. More dangerous than this was the fact that following the first round of parliamentary elections, and the Freedom and Justice Party’s landslide victory, winning 40 percent of seats, many people in different ministries and government organs sought to contact us. However we are not talking about ministers, but rather those working underneath them, and we received information that indicated that everything was heading in one direction, namely the destruction of our chances – as the majority- to form a new government. At the same time, Egypt’s cash reserves were decreasing, and the investors who came to establish projects [in Egypt] were failing to find anybody to help them in any regard; no decisions were being taken, and nobody was taken any action to resolve the problems. Therefore we were facing a very dangerous state. We also uncovered attempts to harm Egypt’s relations with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the US, via strange incidents. The court case regarding the foreign NGO’s took place, which saw us potentially destroying our position with the US. Did Egypt calculate the situation correctly with regards to this case? Were we ready for prosecution, imprisonment, and escalating the situation or not? When asked, Egyptian Prime Minister Kamal Ganzouri said that Egyptian Minister of International Cooperation Faiza Abu El Naga was not aware of this case, and nor was the prime minister. Then we saw the prime minister attacking Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Gulf States for not helping Egypt, despite the fact that information that we are in possession of says the opposite. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has pledged $4 billion to support the Egyptian economy, and $500 million will be sent immediately, and the rest via programs that the [Egyptian] government will implement…although the government has, as of yet, failed to do so.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you give us any specific examples about the Egyptian government’s failures in this regard?

[El-Shater] For example Saudi Arabia allocated $750 million to support Saudi exports to Egypt, this means that there is financial support for goods that are imported from Saudi Arabia. Therefore the Egyptian government must provide a clear and precise program to allow businessmen to benefit from this subsidization and the support provided by the Saudi government. The Qatari government also said that it was ready to pump investment into the Egyptian private sector, pledging between $10 – $15 billion; the Egyptian government has said that there are preliminary studies on this, but nothing concrete has happened…and then after all this the government said that the Gulf State governments are not helping Egypt! It’s enough that the Saudi and Qatari governments pledged specific figures! The third issue is the issue of foreign loans to cover the budget deficit. How can we accept or reject this without more information? Is it logical for an interim government to take out loans and spend this within two months, and then to be replaced by a permanent government that will be responsible for paying off these loans? We propose two solutions, either postponing the loans until a new government is formed on 31 July, or accelerating the formation of a new government so that this decision can be taken now.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists are always confidently stating that they should hold executive power at this time, whilst also speaking about the executive powers of the presidency. What is your view of this?

[El-Shater] For us, this is not an issue of confidence, and we do not seek to be in charge of the government or the presidency, we know that the country is in a very difficult situation, and it is difficult for anybody to carry the burdens of this alone. This is an extreme situation, for the administration of Egypt today is closer to suicide and failure than it is to success. The issue is not simple, and therefore we are not doing all this because we find power attractive but rather out of duty.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] So you disagree with me there is a sense of confidence regarding the Freedom and Justice party coming to power?

[El-Shater] It is not a question of confidence or rushing [to take power] rather it is a desire, driven by our Islamic background, to save what can be saved. The people chose us, so how can we let them drown…this is our responsibility. On the contrary, we in the Muslim Brotherhood would have preferred to be in the opposition, but how can be the largest political bloc – enjoying 47 percent of all parliamentary seats – and be in the opposition? If we did this, we would be running away from our responsibility, so this is not confidence or rushing to take power…rather we have no choice!

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Some people have raised questions about your ties to Qatar. Is there anything suspicious about your relations with the Gulf State? To what extent did this relationship persuade you to stand for the Egyptian presidency?

[El-Shater] I can honestly state that I do not have a “special” relationship with anybody, rather I deal with all present parties – domestically and abroad – in the same manner, particularly as we were preparing to participate in the Egyptian government even before the announcement of my presidential candidacy. Since the first moment after I announced my candidacy, I have not travelled abroad or dealt with anybody other than Egyptians, whilst prior to this we were busy participating in establishing the government, and dealing with operational programs. During this period, I would focus on two vial things in every meeting…the first thing was to obtain as much expertise as possible on the issue of establishing a state, because we do not have high levels of experience in certain areas. Therefore we discovered that the Turks succeeded in doubling production 4 times over a period of 10 years, so we must study this experience, and research whether some aspects of this can be implemented in Egypt. We also found that Singapore had achieved unusual success in managing its education and health sectors, and so we sat down with them to see what administrative or technical aspects of this we could appropriate and implement in Egypt. In addition to this, we saw that in post-Apartheid South Africa the people were subject to much suffering, particularly with regards to corruption and an uncertain future. In South Africa we found a model entitled “transitional justice” and this is a comprehensive approach on how to recover rights and push for social peace; they said this was a transitional phase that would last for a number of years. As for the second issue, this is our budget deficit, and so we have talked about urging our private sector to participate in a number of projects, we also spoke to a number of Arab and foreign investors, including Turkish and Syrian investors. I also spoke with officials in Qatar, Kuwait, Libya, Turkey, as well as other officials in Europe and the Gulf…and my primary goal was to promote the idea of investing in Egypt. I have not spoken about any particular projects with anybody, because there are no comprehensive studies, but we are working to carry out preliminary studies. Our relations with all states are taking place in this context.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about the rumours that the Qataris played a role in convincing you to stand for the presidency?

[El-Shater] This did not happen….when the Brotherhood and the Freedom and Justice party took the decision to nominate me, this was the first time that this subject was put forward to me.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about the reports that you met with Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces [SCAF], before you officially announced your presidential candidacy?

[El-Shater] There were no meeting or discussions with anybody from SCAF or any government apparatus regarding the issue of my nomination for the presidency, although I have met with a number of officials – domestically and abroad – as part of my studying of the current scene [in Egypt], and as part of our party’s preparation to participate in government. I also took part in a number of meetings, at home and abroad. Some people have claimed that I have met with the Americans and the Turks and others, and I have no sensitivity or problem with this, because we are talking about contribution to the management of a state via participating in government or nomination for the presidency…so it is natural for us to communicate with everybody and look for solutions to Egypt’s problems. How can you manage a country when you are shy about meeting this figure or that?

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Let us return to the issue of the presidency. Former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser gambled on social justice and an end to feudalism, whilst his successor Anwar Sadat gambled on military rule, and toppled Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak gambled on stability and good foreign relations…what will Khairat El-Shater gamble on?

[El-Shater] I will gamble on the optimum use of resources and fixed assets in Egypt, as well as relying on saving the Egyptians via development programs. Over the past 3 months, the economic situation in the country has deteriorated significantly and we have discovered that a large part of the current economic problems that we are facing can be traced back to the fact that during the Mubarak era we saw the largest organized looting of our national resources and assets, specifically in late 2002. When Gamal Mubarak began the “bequethment [of power] project”, he began to implement his philosophy which was based on creating a class of businessmen affiliated to him who would serve as an essential component of his project, and he chose some of them and gave them the right to own and manage Egypt’s vital assets and resources, and they sold this at very cheap price. The other issue with regards to the Arab and foreign investors is that these were split into two camps. The first camp, and they are few, was affiliated to the ruling family…whereas the second camp faced many problems and obstacles. Today we are studying the entire file and we understand that we must provide a suitable atmosphere for investment, and I have personally seen many cases – particularly with regards to Arab investors – who have good feelings and love for Egypt, because of our cultural and historic and Islamic ties with the people of the Gulf, Libya, Algeria and others. Therefore we have resources that need good management, and other resource that require good use. In that case, we are relying on the optimum use of our resources and assets. In addition to this, the Egyptian people have been brought up on the songs of Umm Kalthoum and Abdul Halilm Hafez, and so this is cultural value that exists in the hearts of the Egyptian people, even if they do not talk about this!

[Asharq Al-Awsat] How will your business operations be affected should you become the next president of Egypt?

[El-Shater] I do not have many business operations, and the picture that is drawn up about me in the media is not true, indeed not even 1 percent is true. I issued my financial disclosure to the Higher Elections Commission, and if the Egyptian people choose me as president then I will publish this disclosure. At the same time, over the past 19 years I was imprisoned for a total of 12 years during 4 separate occasions, so I could not run my businesses, and every time that I launched a company the authorities would imprison me, and then when I was released I would launch another company. Most of my business was with others, because it is difficult to launch a business that relied on myself, for this would fail when I was imprisoned. Therefore I have shares in several companies. However in the event that I am elected, I will liquidate all of these businesses and give each of my children their share from the resulting funds, because this would be problematic were I president, indeed it would even provide problems that we do not need if my son, for example, were to run a business whilst I was in the presidency.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Let us look at the international Muslim Brotherhood movement; there are studies that claim that the mother organization may fracture with the establishment of local political parties. What is your view of this?

[El-Shater] With regards to my presence abroad, and I have lived in Yemen, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Britain…the term the “international” Muslim Brotherhood organization is the most maligned term with regards to the Muslim Brotherhood ideology, because there is no “international” organization in this regard…rather there are ties between different Muslim Brotherhood associations in different regions, which is akin to the ties of the international Socialist movement. Therefore there are joint-relations and mutual coordination to utilize experience and support…but as for an international organization, in the sense of a leadership that gives instructions and takes action, I swear to God that there is no such thing, for each country has his own circumstances and special nature.