The eldest of three prominent Coptic Christian brothers at fifty-six years of age, Naguib Sawiris first began investing in Egypt’s nascent telecom industry in the early 1990s. This strategy soon made him the first billionaire in his family. The telecom magnate joined family-owned Orascom in 1979. Sawiris has continuously contributed to the growth of the firm, which today represents one of Egypt’s largest and most diversified conglomerates. Orascom Telecom has since expanded its operations into Algeria, Tunisia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iraq, and North Korea.
On the 2006 Forbes list of the world’s richest people, Sawiris was ranked at no. 278. He subsequently rose to no. sixty-two in 2007 and no. sixty in 2008. With the onset of the global economic crisis in 2009, his total wealth dropped to three billion dollars, causing his ranking on the world’s billionaires list to fall to no. 196.
Before the Revolution
Sawiris did not hold any political posts before Egypt’s January 25 Revolution. Though known to be close to powerful political figures, he was never a member of the National Democratic Party of ousted president Hosni Mubarak, or any other bodies associated with the former regime. In 2007 and 2008, he launched the satellite television channels OTV and OnTV respectively.
Sawiris’s name first came to the forefront of public discussions during the 1990s when the state awarded his company MobiNil one of two mobile telephone licenses in the country. While his political leanings were not obvious at the time, it was assumed that Sawiris enjoyed good relations with the Mubarak regime, since such licenses were usually awarded to individuals with friendly ties to the ruling party.
Some media reports assert that Sawiris was close to Mubarak’s son Gamal, who was apparently being groomed to assume the presidency after his father. After Mubarak’s downfall, however, Sawiris asserted that he had differences with Mubarak’s son, but acknowledged that Mubarak’s rule was not entirely negative and that his own businesses and interests have grown during the deposed president’s reign.
Sawiris is also a major investor in the prominent Egyptian daily Al-Masry al-Youm, which was launched in 2004 and has become one of Egypt’s most widely read daily newspapers.
He was also one of the chief financiers of the Democratic Front Party, a liberal opposition party launched in 2007 that was initially led by Osama Al-Ghazali Harb.
In 2007, some of Sawiris’ comments in which he criticized the hijab (Islamic headscarf) sparked a heated debate. It also prompted calls from Muslim leaders to boycott Sawiris-owned companies and its products.
The Revolution and Beyond
During the revolution, Sawiris, together with a group of respected intellectuals, businessmen, and politicians, formed the “Committee of Wise Men.” This committee was tasked with arbitrating between the revolutionaries–in particular the Revolutionary Youth Coalition–and the Mubarak regime. While committee members claimed to support the revolution, they were also known to be closely associated with some Mubarak regime figures. Ultimately, the committee did not play a significant role in shaping the revolution’s outcome.
In the wake of the revolution, Sawiris, along with a group of like-minded businessmen, established the Free Egyptians Party. Free Egyptians is currently considered the most right-wing party on the Egyptian political spectrum. Sawiris, along with the party’s officials, has stated that he does not lead the Free Egyptians Party nor does he hold any official posts inside it, though media reports continue to link them.
Although Sawiris claims to stand against mixing religion and public affairs, some intellectuals have accused him of contradicting himself. In 2008, he told US interviewer Charlie Rose, “I’m a very strong believer [in Christianity] and this has always been the source of my strength–not the money.”
In August 2011, Sawiris posted a link to a cartoon depicting Mickey and Minnie Mouse wearing traditional Islamic garb on his twitter account. Many Islamists perceived this picture as highly offensive and launched a massive boycott campaign against Sawiris-owned firms. The campaign adversely impacted mobile operator Mobinil, which Sawiris remains closely affiliated with but no longer owns.
[Developed in partnership with Ahram Online.]
From Jadaliyya Editors:
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