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Muslim Brotherhood's business heads enter the spotlight

Others | 27 March 2012

Outside the ballroom of the five-star hotel, bearded men in well-cut suits rush to line up for sunset prayers beside a banner announcing the day's event.

 Piety and commerce side-by-side, this was the scene at the Saturday launch of the Muslim Brotherhood-majority business lobby, the Egyptian Businessmen Development Association (EBDA, which also means 'start' in Arabic).
 
The one-day event for around 1,000 guests ended with a gala dinner and three main guest speakers -- a business tycoon apiece from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Turkey. 
 
It had eight sponsors, among them two American multinationals: Price Cooper Waterhouse and Hill International. 
 
"Hill International is mulling becoming a member of the EBDA. We are also member in the American Chamber in Egypt," said Ahmed Thabet, director of sales in the construction risk management company, currently working on the Grand Egyptian Museum, due to open in 2014.
 
Other sponsors are firms that flourished during the reign of the ousted president Hosni Mubarak but have remained unsullied after post-uprising graft investigations: cable-maker El-Sewedy; the Alkan Group founded by the late Mohamed Nosseir; Juhayna, food producer and caterer to US bases in the Gulf; and Egyptians Steel.
 
"In the business world, they don't give much weight to political affiliations," explained Ahmed Zein of Memark, the consultancy firm which developed EBDA's logo and works on its branding.
 
"That said, we had to exclude sponsoring offers from other companies closer to the old regime. You would not find companies like Ceramica Cleopatra or Ezz Steel," he admitted, naming companies linked to allegedly corrupt figures. 
 
"This would harm the image of this business association given the reputation it wants to build." 
 
Zein also worked on marketing 'The Makers of Life' charity project started by the famed Islamist preacher, Amr Khaled.
 
The final two sponsors are directly related to the Brotherhood, the country's main Islamist force whose political wing now has a leading role in parliament, and owned by members Hassan Malek and Samir El-Naggar. The former owns the Malek Group, the latter an industrial agri-food firm.
 
It was Malek who came up with the idea of EBDA and is its first chairman.
 
Joining the board of EBDA, on which Brotherhood investors and traders sit, requires members to meet two conditions, says Zein.
 
First, their firms must be able to show a record clean of corruption. Second, they must be medium-sized companies able to help start-ups and smaller enterprises.
 
"To this date, we have 500 membership applications. We only accepted 150," said board member Ahmed Abdel Hafez, describing a fastidious selection process. Membership costs LE2,500, with an annual subscription of LE2,000. 
 
"We decided to encourage SMEs by cutting subscription annual fees to LE500," Abdel Hafez added. 
 
"We've also invited many companies to join us," said Abdel Moneim Seoudi, another board member, who was jailed in Mubarak's time. 
 
The owner of a supermarket chain and car-dealership, he told Ahram Online that he had invited Beshay steel makers, a business owned by a Coptic Christian family, to join. 
 
"I am confident they will," he says, before two Freedom and Justice Party parliamentarians, calling him "Abu Obayda", ask to pose for a photo with him.
 
Before Malek starts his speech, four large screens play footage from 2011's mass demonstrations in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Then the chairman takes to the stage.
 
"We seek empowerment for businessmen to boost economy. This comes through promoting investment and development but also through participating in decision making and economic legislature," he says, in words which at times echo those of Gamal Mubarak, the ousted president's 'business-friendly' son.
 
But for Malek the difference is in the players, not the supposed aims. He hails a "new class" of businessmen who will do things differently.
 
"It is time to take the lead. The corruption ring is now broken," he declares to the crowd. "We will support corporate governance and transparency in companies' management."
 
There is little information available about about the Malek Group, or indeed many other companies owned by members of the Brotherhood. During their years in the political opposition, many had to hide their sources of finance to avoid them being confiscated.
 
A few years ago, Malek's assets were frozen and he was tried before a military court. He was only cleared after the revolution. 
 
None of these companies are listed on any stock markets, and hence deails on their sales revenues, activities and profits are not publicly available.
 
Despite being the majority party in parliament, the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice has not proposed any laws regarding corporate governance, corruption or conflict of interests.
 
According to a blog called Free Hassan Malek, created in 2007, Malek was an important trader, with his family known for investing in the spinning and weaving industry.
 
The blog claims that, the now 54-year-old Malek established a company called Salsabeel at the beginning of the 1990s. The firm has the same name as the lawsuit brought against members of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1992 after both Malek and his partner, Khairat El-Shater, were arrested. 
 
Malek was put under provisional detention for a year before being released. He then branched into the furniture industry, establishing two Egypt-based companies that rely on imports from Turkey: Istikbal and Sirar.
 
But it is business itself that seems to be what intrigues Malek. 
 
"We went through dozens of projects to adopt. We finally set our minds on two, following young businessmen advice," he told the EBDA meeting.
 
The association launches with a project to finance small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs) clustered around bigger industry, working in partnership with the Social Fund for Development.
Another project aims to provide training programs to workers through their trade unions.
 
"There is a room for new business organisations," said another attendee, Alaa Ezz, an ex-member of the dissolved National Democratic Party (NDP) and current secretary general of the Confederation of Egyptian European Business Associations (CEEBA). 
 
Sitting at the table nearest the podium and beside businessman Hussein Sabbour, Ezz said he welcomed the creation of the new business lobby and said he was attending as the secretary general of the Chambers of Commerce Federation. 
 
"By law I have to be a member in every businessmen oganisation's board," he said, but added that he does not currently consider himself a member of EBDA.
Unlike Ezz, another attendee, Ahmed El-Swedy was enthusiastic about the association. 
 
"Please let us look ahead," he said. "Islamists don't have enough experience and they need our help.
 
"Let's not start labelling people as Salafis, Copts or felool [remnants of the old regime]," he said in his speech. He told Ahram Online he has decided to become an EBDA member.

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