Egypt presidential candidate is shrewd strategist

Analysis: Muslim Brotherhood’s Khairat al-Shater is staunch Islamist as well as pragmatist.

Muslim Brotherhood, FJP's Khairat al-Shater (photo credit: Reuters)
Muslim Brotherhood, FJP's Khairat al-Shater
(photo credit: Reuters)
Khairat al-Shater, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s presidential candidate as of last week, is the epitome of the Islamist movement’s mix of pragmatism and deep religious conservatism.
A follower of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Arab socialism in his youth, Shater studied engineering in university but gradually shifted to an identification with political Islam. After a few years in Britain in the early 1980s, he returned to Brotherhood activity in Egypt and became its Cairo branch leader in 1995.
Shater, widely known by his nickname “The Engineer,” has made millions through a successful chain of home-furnishing stores. His business savvy and strategic skills soon made him the Brotherhood’s main financier.
Now 61, Shater engaged in Islamist activity that earned him 12 years in prison in six different spells. He was released last year following the popular uprisings that ousted longtime president Hosni Mubarak.
The Brotherhood has dominated Egyptian parliamentary elections, garnering half of all votes in balloting that ended earlier this year. Still, until last week the movement had insisted it would not run a presidential candidate.
The decision to renege on that pledge has shaken up Egypt’s presidential race. The latest polls by Al-Ahram newspaper show Mubarak’s foreign minister Amr Moussa leading the pack with 32 percent support, followed by the Salafi Islamist candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail with 23 percent.
The results, however, were tallied before the announcement of the Brotherhood decision.
Shater is already considered one of the front-runners of the race, and his official campaign Facebook page has accumulated 85,000 “likes” in just its first week.
Shater’s technical education, business career and years in Britain appear to have made him more attuned to Western sensibilities, and he has spoken positively of free-market principles and foreign investment in Egypt’s troubled economy.
Brotherhood figures have delivered contradictory signals over its commitment to Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, but Shater has remained cautiously tight-lipped. His only reference to the treaty came in a January interview with Al- Ahram in which he said the group would abide by Egypt’s past diplomatic agreements.
“We will abide by the commitments of the Egyptian government regardless of our reservations,” he said. “We commit to all matters pertaining to the agreements in general, and not only with Israel.”
In 2005 he penned an op-ed in the Guardian newspaper in a bid to assuage Western fears over the prospect of Islamic governance.
The Brotherhood hopes to “trigger a renaissance in Egypt, rooted in the religious values upon which Egyptian culture and society is built; for we believe these values can effectively deal with the obstacles that have hindered reform and development,” Shater wrote.
“The success of the Muslim Brotherhood should not frighten anybody: We respect the rights of all religious and political groups,” he wrote.
Shater’s Facebook page hails the candidate, in Arabic and English, as the “Engineer of Egypt’s Renaissance.”
The page also features an article from the US magazine Foreign Policy listing Shater as one of last year’s “Top 100 Global Thinkers.” The magazine’s editors explained that Shater was included on the list “for working to reconcile Islamism and democracy [we hope].”