CAIRO — Egypt is on the brink of political and economic collapse and the West has an obligation to sustain the country with financial aid and diplomatic support, a senior Muslim Brotherhood official has warned.
Khairat El-Shater, deputy supreme guide of the Islamist movement that controls half the Egyptian parliament, said this week that the United States and Europe are neglecting Egypt at their peril a year after a popular uprising deposed a key U.S. ally in former president Hosni Mubarak.
“The democratic transition in Egypt is hanging in the balance,” Shater said this week at the Brotherhood’s headquarters in a Cairo suburb. “We strongly advise the Americans and the Europeans to support Egypt during this critical period as compensation for the many years they supported a brutal dictatorship.”
Shater’s appeal was extraordinary, coming as it did from a group the United States had long kept at arm’s length out of respect for Mubarak, who persecuted the Brotherhood as a threat to his secular rule. It was only two months ago that high-level U.S. officials engaged in rare formal meetings with senior Brotherhood members, many of whom regard Washington warily for its unstinting support of Mubarak.
Since Mubarak’s ouster, the Egyptian economy has suffered from capital flight, rising inflation, a yawning balance-of-payments deficit and a failed bid to stabilize the local currency that halved its foreign reserves. An economic meltdown, Shater warned, would “transform a peaceful revolution into a hunger revolution” with traumatic consequences for U.S. interests in the region. Tensions in Egypt boiled over this week in response to the deaths of more than seventy people at a soccer riot in Port Said, an incident rumored to have had political motivations.
The United States has been cautious in its approach to Egypt since Mubarak’s fall, supporting its transition to civilian rule while insisting that its freely elected parliament uphold the country’s international accords, particularly its peace treaty with Israel. Washington has been sharply critical of the government’s move last month to prohibit several American NGO workers, including the son of U.S. transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, from leaving the country.
But Shater admonished the U.S. government for its long support of Mubarak at the expense of the Egyptian people.
The 61-year-old Shater made his remarks as relations between Washington and Cairo have decayed amid reports the White House is pressuring Egypt’s military-run interim government to hasten a transition to civilian rule.
He warned against a reduction in U.S. aid to Egypt, a reference to recent reports that the Obama administration has threatened to cut Washington’s annual $1.3 billion package of military assistance, a legacy of Egypt’s three-decade old peace treaty with Israel.
Shater, an engineer by training, is widely regarded as a shrewd pragmatist informed by a successful business career and the 12 years he spent in Mubarak’s prisons. He has emerged as a powerful voice in a country polarized by the generals in power, an Islamist revival and a loose coalition of secular groups that led the anti-Mubarak revolt only to lose badly at the ballot box.
Shater’s investment returns are thought to be so crucial to the sustainability of the Brotherhood’s charitable works that his assets were seized several years ago by the government.
In the interview, Shater played down his influence over an organization known for its rigid hierarchy. Nevertheless, he is thought to be the driving force behind recent Brotherhood commitments to recognize Egypt’s diplomatic and trade accords with Israel and to not impose Islamist strictures such as dress codes on women and bans on alcohol.
“The general feeling is that he is the one who is making these decisions,” said Ibrahim Zaafarani, a former group member who heads Cairo’s Arab Doctors Association.
Respect for Shater as an astute businessman and dissident is tempered among some liberal activists for what they say is his overly conciliatory regard for Egypt’s military leaders, who have justified for security’s sake crackdowns on peaceful demonstrations and restrictions on press freedoms.
Shater emphasized that his assets remain in state hands a year after Mubarak’s departure and that exiled Brotherhood members are still living abroad for fear they would be arrested should they return to Egypt — proof, he said, that the Islamist group and the military have not made a deal to protect each other.
“The army has been ruling Egypt for more than 60 years,” he said. “The transition from military rule will take a gradual approach, though this does not sit well with those who take to the streets demanding that the military leave immediately.”
Researcher Deena Adel contributed to this report.