CAIRO — For more than a dozen years, Khairat el-Shater guided his family of 10 children, his sprawling business empire and Egypt’s largest Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, all from a prison cell.
Each week, he held court behind prison walls as young Muslim Brothers delivered to him dossiers about the organization that sometimes were as long as 200 pages. His corporate employees paid regular visits for strategic advice about his investments in software, textile, bus manufacturing and furniture companies and other enterprises. And before consenting to the marriages of his eight daughters, he met in prison with each of their suitors. Some of the grooms were prisoners with him, others made the pilgrimage, and five said their vows in his presence, behind bars.
Now Mr. Shater, 62, commands far wider influence.
One year after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak brought Mr. Shater freedom, he has emerged as the most decisive voice in the leadership of the Brotherhood, the 83-year-old fountainhead of political Islam, at the moment when it has established itself as the dominant power in Egyptian politics.
With firm control of Egypt’s Parliament, the Brotherhood’s political arm is holding talks to form the next cabinet while Mr. Shater is grooming about 500 future officials to form a government-in-waiting. As the group’s chief policy architect, Mr. Shater is overseeing the blueprint for the new Egypt, negotiating with its current military rulers over their future role, shaping its relations with Israel and a domestic Christian minority, and devising the economic policies the Brotherhood hopes will revive Egypt’s moribund economy.
With power he could only dream of when he padded around Mr. Mubarak’s prisons in a white track suit, Mr. Shater meets foreign ambassadors, the executives of multinational corporations and Wall Street firms, and a parade of United States senators and other officials to explain the Brotherhood’s vision. To the Brotherhood, he tells them, Islam requires democracy, free markets and tolerance of religious minorities.
But he also says that recent elections have proved that Egyptians demand an explicitly Islamic state. And he is guiding its creation from a position that his critics say may undercut his avowed commitment to open democracy: he sits atop a secretive and hierarchical organization, shaped by decades of working underground, that still asks its members — including those in Parliament — to swear obedience to the directions of its leaders, whether in the group’s religious, charitable or political work.
“The Islamic reference point regulates life in its entirety, politically, economically and socially; we don’t have this separation” between religion and government, Mr. Shater said in a lengthy interview. “The Muslim Brotherhood is a value-based organization that expresses itself using different political, economic, sportive, health-related and social means. You can’t take one part from one place and another part from another — this isn’t how it’s done.”
A former leftist and a millionaire businessman who is also the Brotherhood’s chief financier, Mr. Shater was known for years as the group’s most important internal advocate for moderation and modernization.
In prison, he talked radical Islamist inmates into renouncing violence. He helped chart the Brotherhood’s first steps into electoral politics, initially in Egypt’s professional associations of doctors, lawyers, engineers and the like. Then he was at the forefront of its more transformative drive to win seats in the Mubarak-dominated Parliament; the experience did more than anything to moderate the group as it forged coalitions and courted the mainstream. And over the past decade he also oversaw its stepped-up outreach to the West through Web sites in Arabic and English.
“No need to be afraid of us” declared the headline of a 2005 article he wrote from behind bars for the British newspaper The Guardian. “The Brotherhood,” he wrote, “believes democratic reforms could trigger a renaissance in Egypt.”
Moving Toward a New Model
But in the new context of Egypt’s fledgling democracy, his critics — including both liberals and Islamists — charge that he is using the Brotherhood’s all-encompassing understanding of Islam as a tool for political power. Against dissidents arguing that in a free society the Brotherhood should allow its members to decide for themselves how to apply Islam to politics, Mr. Shater has enforced the group’s traditional view of itself as the guardian of a single, take-it-or-leave-it vision.
He has defended the Brotherhood’s traditional view of itself as a society within society that employs politics as just one tool, along with preaching and charity, to move society toward an Islamic model. He has led an internal crackdown on younger members who sought to change its insular and hierarchical culture. And he has pushed for the expulsion of Brotherhood members who disagree with the political decisions made by its ruling Guidance Council — including a popular former Brotherhood leader, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who is now running for president. At the core of his campaign is a call for a more pluralistic understanding of Islamist politics.
Mr. Shater, however, says that his critics misunderstand Islam, the Brotherhood and democracy. The Islamist landslide in parliamentary elections — the Brotherhood’s party or more conservative Islamists won 70 percent of the vote — is an indisputable democratic mandate for an explicitly Islamic government, he said recently in a rare television interview.
“The people are insistent,” Mr. Shater said. “All institutions should revise their cultures, their training programs and the way they build their individuals in the light of this real popular choice.”
How to fulfill that mandate, though, is the overarching question of the Arab Spring. With Islamists approaching power in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Morocco, and perhaps someday in Syria, all face a similar challenge: how they reconcile their historic religious missions with more recent commitments to pluralistic democracy.
Some are seeking a new way. Convinced that fallible politicians will never know the definitive way to apply divine law to public life, Islamists in Turkey and Tunisia and in breakaway parties here have sought to extricate governing from religious interpretation — a view some call post-Islamist.
But Egypt’s Brotherhood, the original Islamist movement at the center of the Arab world, has never flinched from demanding an Islamic government and opposing secular rule. “Egypt is the first Sunni Islamist experiment in democracy,” said Shadi Hamid, the director of research for the Brookings Doha Center, which is based in Qatar.
Mr. Shater — whose title is deputy to the Brotherhood’s top leader, known as the supreme guide — is acknowledged as the most important strategist and clearest exponent of the group’s answer to that test. In an interview, he explained that the Brotherhood believed that Islam’s concept of “shura,” or consultation, meant representative democracy. He said the group supported the right of those with a more secular vision to compete in free and fair elections. If differences arose over how to apply Islamic teachings to public life, then society should rely on democratic methods to settle any disputes.
But the parameters of policy choices, he argued, should be laid out by experts drawing not only on economics, political science and other disciplines, but also on a deep knowledge of Islam. “It is better, with time, to have someone who knows both subjects,” he said.
In practice, liberals say, the Brotherhood’s approach has already made its ruling Guidance Council — where Mr. Shater is the dominant voice — the de facto overseer of Egypt’s next government. “Egypt is now being run from the Brotherhood’s Guidance Council,” Mohamed Abu Hamed, an outspoken liberal lawmaker, said in an interview, describing events at a recent party at the Indian Embassy to illustrate his point.
Politicians, diplomats and businessmen all rushed past the elected lawmakers and straight for Mr. Shater, Mr. Abu Hamed said, just as they once did for Mr. Mubarak’s son and heir apparent, Gamal.
“This tells you where power lies,” Mr. Abu Hamed said.
A World of Brothers
Like many who clung to the Brotherhood through years of persecution, Mr. Shater inhabits a world defined by its fellowship. He employs mostly Muslim Brothers, his daughters married Muslim Brothers and a brother-in-law, Mahmoud Ghozlan, is the group’s official spokesman.
Mr. Shater is a traditionalist but also a pragmatist, his friends and critics say. He sits on the board of an Islamist study group so conservative that it opposes almost all musical entertainment. It advocates a segregation of the sexes so strict that it advises women not to talk on the telephone with men outside their immediate families. One of its leaders, Sheik Shaaban Darwish, praised Mr. Shater as “a man of very high morality.”
But Mr. Shater’s advisers say he sits on the board without endorsing its views. They say he is there to maintain a dialogue with the rival faction of ultraconservative Islamists, known as Salafis, who control nearly a quarter of Parliament.
The son of a merchant in the town of Mansoura, Mr. Shater grew up an avid socialist under President Gamal Abdel Nasser, and he read widely in the works of Western mid-century Marxists. But after Nasser’s disastrous 1967 war with Israel, Mr. Shater joined the student protest movement. At 18, he was jailed for four months, expelled from college and conscripted early into military service.
He was drawn to the Muslim Brotherhood, he said, because of its comprehensiveness. “It talks about building the individual, building the family, building the society, building the state,” he said. “It talks about the economy, it talks about sociology, it talks about culture.”
He also invested in his own businesses, and with another prominent Brotherhood businessman, Hassan Malek, founded one of Egypt’s first software companies, Salsabeel, which signed the Egyptian military as one of its clients.
Then, in 1995, as Mr. Shater’s influence in the Brotherhood was growing, the government confiscated the company after a military trial. Mr. Shater was sentenced to one of four stints in prison under Mr. Mubarak. He served a total of 12 years, longer than any other Brotherhood leader. His central role in the group’s financial affairs, Brotherhood leaders say, made him a special target and now remains a source of his clout.
After Mr. Shater’s release last March, though, many young Brotherhood members and reformers say they were disappointed by the man who emerged. His talk of democracy and tolerance for Egypt did not extend to reforming the Brotherhood, they complained. “We were deceived,” said Mohamed el-Gibba, 27, a former member.
In the context of a more open and democratic Egypt, some in the Brotherhood argued that the group should let its members enter politics on their own while focusing on its missionary work, in preaching and charity. In addition to Mr. Aboul Fotouh, the presidential candidate, a procession of reformers sought to run for office on post-Islamist platforms, including some of the young members who, against their elders’ advice, helped kick off the uprising against Mr. Mubarak.
But instead, Mr. Shater helped guide the Brotherhood’s leadership into creating a new political party — the Freedom and Justice Party — financed and controlled by the Brotherhood itself. Brotherhood members are barred from publicly contesting against the party or its positions.
The only reason the Brotherhood had set up an ostensibly independent party, Mr. Shater said in the interview, was because Egyptian law required it. Otherwise, he said, they would be “one thing.”
“You have one of two choices,” Mr. Shater said he told a group of dissenting Brotherhood youth. “Either you stay in the Muslim Brotherhood and the Muslim Brotherhood’s party, or if you insist on another party, then you’ll be the ones leaving us.”
“This is normal,” he said, “because the party is an expression of a political vision. If you have the same vision, you will join this party. You can’t adopt a different vision from the party that represents us, that represents the vision of the group.”
Some former members say this arrangement puts the democratic Parliament under the effective control of the undemocratic Brotherhood. Abdulrahman Ayyash, 22, a former Brotherhood member who worked closely with Mr. Shater before leaving over the issue, said: “Is it O.K. that the Freedom and Justice Party takes direction from the Guidance Council of the Muslim Brotherhood? No, it is a majority party now, not the Muslim Brotherhood party.” But the Brotherhood leaders, Mr. Ayyash said, “are building all their authority on the policy of blind obedience.”
The dissidents say that Mr. Shater has enforced compliance with even internally controversial positions. He is overseeing revisions of the Brotherhood’s internal teaching materials to reflect a more tolerant stance toward Israel as the group’s political arm comes to terms with the Camp David treaty. People who work with him say that he has led talks to consider offering criminal immunity or limited scrutiny of the defense budget as trade-offs to ease the ruling generals out of power. He has also promoted an understanding of Islam that includes business-friendly free-market economics. “They tightened the screws on anyone who had different ideas about economics,” said Mohamed Habib, a former deputy Supreme Guide of the Brotherhood who also recently quit the group over its intolerance of internal political dissent.
“It is a group for Muslims, not ‘the’ group for Muslims,” Mr. Habib complained.
But for now, American officials say they value Mr. Shater’s cool effectiveness. “He is the behind-the-scenes guy,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, who recently met with Mr. Shater along with a group of mostly Republican lawmakers. “Very impressive.”
Mr. Shater assured them of the group’s commitments to free-market capitalism, to equality for Egypt’s Christian minority and to freedom of association for nonprofit groups, Mr. Graham said. When the senators asked him to publicly clarify the last point in order to help resolve the criminal charges against some nonprofit organizations backed by the United States, the Brotherhood’s party released a statement a few hours later, Mr. Graham said, earning the senators’ gratitude.
Mr. Graham said he noticed that Mr. Shater seemed to wield considerable power without holding any public office, and that he saw some American parallels. “I think they call that Chicago,” the senator said.