Searching For God in a Dusty Side Street in Mansoura


Before the Muslim Brotherhood lost power in Egypt, I drove to Mansoura, a few hours north of Cairo, to find the place where Khairat El-Shater had come from. I had met Shater in a nondescript, fluorescent-lit office in Cairo a few days earlier. He was a big man, and he spoke in short, declarative sentences. One of his aides served cucumber juice and tea. He had told me that Egypt would rebuild itself with the help of the Koran and foreign investment — God and capital. Or capital and God. Before he had ascended to the highest echelons of the Brotherhood, Shater had been the computer king of Cairo, and he had shuttled around the Middle East making deals, forging contacts. He had started doing this in the seventies, but then, in October 1981, after Sadat was murdered, he had been forced to flee, and then he had gone to Glasgow. Later, back in Egypt, he had built a powerful, fundraising machine for the Brotherhood, and this quickly propelled him up through the ranks of the organization. By the time we met, Shater was widely believed to be the Rasputin of Egypt. Morsi was the face of the new, Islamist state. But it was Shater who pulled all the levers. I had believed, stupidly, that he knew exactly what he was doing. He had conveyed a sense of great authority, great wisdom, and I had asked him where that came from. “Everything I have, the person I am, the way I think and imagine the world — all of that comes from Mansoura.” So we went to Mansoura. I met the local Brotherhood apparatus. These people were mostly older women who were the backbone of a social-welfare network that sprawled across the country. They were the reason the Brotherhood had managed to take power after Mubarak. The Mansoura apparat thought Shater was a mythical figure, almost God-like. “He comes from these streets,” one of the women told me. “He is not just from Mansoura — he is of it.”

A few days ago, I called the Brotherhood office where she worked (about a two-minute walk from where this photograph was taken), and I asked if she had seen or heard anything from Shater, who disappeared after Morsi was ejected from power. “He is gone and maybe dead, but probably not,” she said. “Probably, he’s planning something very big that we will all know about very soon.”

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