Another Muslim Brotherhood figure is beginning to draw nearly as much attention as president Mohammed Morsi. Bradley Hope reports from Cairo
Khairat Al Shater – Muslim Brotherhood power broker and now target of Egyptian anger
CAIRO // As protesters across the country demonstrated against Mohammed Morsi for a third straight day today, another Muslim Brotherhood figure was beginning to draw nearly as much attention as the president himself.
Khairat Al Shater, deputy leader of the Brotherhood and a major financier of the group, now regularly features on protest posters and in chants decrying what protesters describe as the Brotherhood's secretive and conspiratorial ways. On Monday, a group of men including police officers fired guns at Mr Al Shater's family home in the suburb of Nasr City and arrested his driver on charges of "assaulting a police officer", according to Mr Al Shater's son, Saad.
Last Wednesday, protesters in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura looted three discount supermarkets of the Zad chain owned by Mr Al Shater's family. Police refused to intervene, according to Saad Al Shater.
"I'm not surprised because the police have been attacking us and arresting us for 40 years," he said in an interview on Tuesday afternoon, referring to the Brotherhood's long history of tangles with the police and intelligence apparatus under Hosni Mubarak, the former president. "They take us to court, fabricate charges. We are only disappointed that they have returned to these old ways and joined demonstrations when they should be protecting all citizens."
Rarely appearing in media or granting interviews, Khairat Al Shater has built up a reputation of being a powerful back-room operator in the two and a half years since a popular uprising forced Mubarak to resign.
Mr Al Shater was the Brotherhood's presidential candidate a year ago but the electoral commission disqualified him because of a criminal record - the result of trumped up cases from the Mubarak regime - pushing Mr Morsi, a backup candidate, centre stage.
Ever since, Mr Al Shater has been the quiet strategist pulling the strings of the presidency from behind the scenes, government critics say. When top diplomats visited Egypt, they sought Mr Al Shater's perspective. Chief executives of global companies came to him to find out about the government's economic direction.
An example of Mr Al Shater's unofficial sway came last month, when news leaked of a dinner at the home of the liberal politician Ayman Nour that included Amr Moussa, a senior member of the anti-Morsi National Salvation Front, and Mr Al Shater.
Mr Nour said the meeting, to discuss "major issues of national security", included Mr Al Shater for two reasons: he was among the most powerful Brotherhood leaders and he held no official title, meaning it was not a "direct" discussion between opposition members and the presidency.
"In fact, we don't see the struggle as being between the people and the presidency, but between the people and the Brotherhood," Mr Nour said last week. "During the meeting, Khairat said he was not participating in the presidency in any way, but we felt that what he said was what mattered."
There has also been a growing perception among the opposition that Mr Al Shater was becoming Egypt's "new Ahmed Ezz", a reference to the steel tycoon and official of Mubarak's disbanded National Democratic Party who was a major target of ire during the 2011 uprising. Ezz was seen by protesters as the quintessential businessman politician, building up a huge fortune in a matter of years by exploiting his connections to the regime.
In March, a criminal court sentenced Ezz to 37 years in prison and fined him Dh1 billion for profiteering, money laundering and squandering public funds. He has denied all the charges and is appealing the convictions.
Mr Al Shater, a religiously conservative merchant who sports a long beard, bears little similarity to the slick image of Ezz, who favoured tailored suits and luxury penthouses in London. Yet, Mr Al Shater's political connections, business aspirations and tendency towards secrecy have fuelled speculation that he is angling to fill the vacuum left by Mubarak-era businessmen.
"Another set of tycoons are coming and people like Khairat Al Shater hope to be among them," said Omar Shenety, the head of Multiples Group, an Egyptian investment bank.
Corporate documents obtained by The National give a glimpse of Mr Al Shater's family's growing business interests. Saad Al Shater, his son, said the family was ploughing millions into businesses that would help revive the country's economy.
The family's main holding company, Egyptian Company for Renaissance and Integrated Development, also known as Namaa, is listed in the city of Ismailia under the name of five of Khairat's daughters: Khadiga, Aisha, Radwa, Hansa and Fatima.
Among the companies connected to the Shater family are SISCOM, an information technology company; Al Shehab, which manufactures small buses; Rawag for Trading, a furniture seller; Rawafid, a training company; and Contact Centre Egypt, which operates call centres. None of these companies' registration documents show Khairat Al Shater as a director. Registration documents for Zad Supermarkets come the closest, listing Saad Al Shater and Khairat's brother, Bahaa Eldin El Shater, as directors.
"The network of the Muslim Brotherhood, in all ways, is closed," said Mohammed Menza, a professor of Middle East politics at the American University in Cairo and author of Patronage Politics in Egypt: the NDP and the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo. "Over the years, the financial arms of the Brotherhood have become very secretive because they were targeted by the Mubarak regime."
The most public example of government crackdowns on Brotherhood businessmen was the confiscation in 1995 of Salsabeel, a computer firm linked to Mr Al Shater and Hassan Malek, another prominent Brotherhood businessman.
The government accused the pair of money laundering and sentenced them to four years in prison.
In total, Mr Al Shater spent a dozen years in prison on convictions related to money laundering. He was released in March 2011, just weeks after Mubarak resigned.
From the moment he obtained his freedom, he has been a source of controversy. Mr Al Shater is believed to have led a drive to push out Brotherhood members who did not fall in line with directives from the group's leadership, including Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a politician who was cast out for disobeying orders and is now a prominent critic of the group.
Most importantly, analysts said, his decisions were a key reason why the 84-year-old group kept the underground mentality that has inspired so much anger in recent months.
Mr Menza, who is also a founding member of the liberal Egypt Freedom Party, said the group's lack of transparency about their investments, campaign spending and ultimate goals for the country have fuelled fears of a secret plot by the Brotherhood to take complete control of the country.
Adel Salem, 50, a businessman from the Sharqeya governorate north of Cairo who was among the millions who protested against the presidency on Sunday, said he had come to Tahrir Square because "we can't trust these men from the Brotherhood".
"They say one thing but do another," he said. "How can we know their true plans if they are not honest and if they hide their dealings behind closed doors?"
After a moment, he added: "And who is this Khairat Al Shater?"