The Brotherhood’s businessmen

American news website Salon.com published an article last week under the title “The GOP Brotherhood of Egypt” in which its writer, Avi Asher-Schapiro, held that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood had more in common with America’s Republican Party than with Al-Qaeda.

The Brotherhood hails free-market capitalism; wealthy businessmen whose economic agenda embraces privatization and foreign investment, the writer said, lead its party. The Brotherhood does not espouse the idea of redistribution of wealth, preferring charity instead as a means of combating poverty.

The article adds that Khairat al-Shater, arguably the most powerful man in the Muslim Brotherhood, is a multimillionaire tycoon whose financial interests extend into several fields of business. “A strong advocate of privatization, Al-Shater is one of a cadre of Muslim Brotherhood businessmen who helped finance the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party’s impressive electoral victory this winter and is now crafting the FJP's economic agenda,” the article reads.

After Egypt got rid of the National Democratic Party’s cabinet of businessmen, it seems we are currently witnessing another illegitimate marriage between capital and power. Paradoxically, Mubarak’s son Gamal — who is currently facing trial over several charges, including corruption — and Shater were both bankers in the past.

In fact, the military trial of Brotherhood members in 2006 to 2007 was only the result of underlying competition between two groups that controlled capital in Egypt, namely between Gamal’s group and  the Brotherhood. All of those who stood trial were leading businessmen in the Brotherhood, the most important of whom was Khairat al-Shater.

Consequently, more than 70 companies owned by the Brotherhood were shut down. The trial was in fact a settlement of accounts between two capitalist rivals, one of whom was forced to leave power only to be replaced by the other.

If we examine the economy chapter in FJP’s platform, we will conclude that the Salon article mentioned above is not making vexatious accusations against the group. Indeed, the platform borrows considerably from the principles of American neo-liberalism and free market capitalism preferred by America’s Republicans.

The party’s platform calls for the withdrawal of the state from providing subsidized services to the people and expands the role of businessmen in managing state affairs. Safeguarding the rights of the poor is considered an act of social solidarity rather than a duty to be fulfilled by the state. This package of essentially American principles is then dubbed “Islamic” by the Brotherhood.

In its fourth chapter, the platform reads, “Economic activity is to be conducted in conformance with Islamic market mechanisms, which depend on fair competition and restricted free economy [without manipulation or monopoly]. Economic activity will also rely on Islamic investment and funding methods. Ownership will be multiple, with regards to public property and private property, on the condition that property be used to carry out their social function to achieve fair expenditure and establish social solidarity. The state will have a decentralized role.”

The Brotherhood’s projects and the extent to which it has penetrated Egypt’s economic structure remains a secret, like much of the Brotherhood’s affairs.  It is impossible to determine the number of companies it owns or how much the group makes every year. We have, however, a list of its companies that were confiscated during the 2007 military trial. A quick look at the trial gives us much insight into the Brotherhood’s business.

Seventy-two Brotherhood-owned companies were confiscated as a result of the trials. They were rentier-based and primarily produced consumer products that targeted upper and middle classes.

This is the least beneficial form of economic activity as opposed to building factories or inventing computer software.

Like the NDP’s businessmen, the Brotherhood’s businessmen registered their projects under the names of their wives or sons-in-law so they would be hard to track down. Shater is one example. The branches of the Shater’s shops are located in the most luxurious shopping malls in Cairo. One of the most famous stores is a furniture shop named Istiqbal, which sells couches for around LE6000, when many young men need a similar amount to finance their marriage. This probably explains the Brotherhood’s uneasiness when dealing with the revolution’s socio-economic demands.

When a wave of so-called professional protests that primarily called for economic demands and better working conditions swept through Egypt after the 25 January revolution, several Egyptian writers keen to uphold social justice sprang to their defense. They insisted that the protests staged by workers, teachers, doctors and employees were part and parcel of the revolution. Mohamed al-Beltagy of the Muslim Brotherhood had a different opinion.

In June, Beltagy decried the protests, saying they would have negative repercussions for the country. But little can we blame Beltagy for his opinion, which dovetails nicely with the group’s capitalist ideology, one that upholds the rights of rich businessmen and the ruling elite at the expense of the poorer classes.

When Shater was in jail after standing military trial, the famous labor leader Kamal Khalil expressed solidarity with him. At the time, Khalil was not aware that he and Shater could not be friends, even though they shared the same enemy. Their ideologies were essentially at odds — a capitalist who adopts American neo-liberalism could not possibly be friends with a socialist who wants the poor to share his property.

As soon as he was discharged from prison, Shater told an American paper that the Brotherhood welcomes foreign investment, and then Shater’s fellow Brotherhood members did not hesitate to report their revolutionary socialist colleagues, who adhere to the same principles as Khalil, who spoke against Shater’s imprisonment to the police. They charged the revolutionary socialists of scheming for the collapse of the state.

Corrupted patterns of privatization and an American-style free market have sent Gamal Mubarak and his fellow businessmen to prison and brought about a revolution. In fact, the very same policies have thrust the US into a continuing economic crisis. America’s Republicans have brought about destruction, and so did our businessmen-oriented government.

So are the Brotherhood’s businessmen going to exacerbate an already-difficult situation with their neoliberal agenda and then fall like their predecessors?

Zeinab Abul-Magd is a professor of history and political economy at the American University in Cairo.

This article was originally published in Arabic on Tahrir News and translated by Dina Zafer.

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