In this incredible eniGma exclusive Naguib Sawiris speaks to Editor-in-Chief Yasmine Shihata about the political party ‘Free Egyptians’, his aspirations for Egypt and reveals the issues and people closest to his heart. This is Sawiris, raw, real, uncut and uncensored…
Naguib Sawiris is a true enigma. He has the charisma, aura and fame of a rock star, while simultaneously having the gravitas, authority and respect of a politician. But of course he is neither. Instead he is an entrepreneur par excellence, whose success as the Chairman of Orascom Telecom has put him on the global map (and consistently on the Forbes World’s Billionaires List since 2006). One of the few Egyptian businessmen with name recognition all over the Middle East and in many parts of the international arena, Sawiris is the Richard Branson of our region. Everyone wants to meet him, everyone wants to do business with him, and when he speaks everyone listens (whether they like him or not).
An immensely confident man, Sawiris knows this well. And he is now using his stature to help shape Egypt’s future. A true patriot, he is spending his time and resources creating and promoting the ‘Free Egyptians Party’, a secular liberal party that believes in true democracy, tolerance, social justice, women’s rights and the power of Egypt’s youth. After launching the party in Cairo, Sawiris has been moving fast and has already held large events for the party in Luxor, Aswan, Sohag, Alexandria and Hurghada. With steadfast determination, steely ambition and an unshakable love for Egypt, Sawiris is giving this fight everything he’s got.
You were the first and only high profile businessman to take part in Egypt’s revolution. Why do you think that is?
I’ve always been very critical of the lack of freedom under the old regime and the fact we only had one party we could join if we wanted to be politically active. So I was thrilled to finally see this day come. I had to take action because it’s my country and I’ve always been heavily involved in the past. I could not just stay out of it. It was a risky position, but in life sometimes you need to decide whether you’re going to do the right thing or not.
As there was a lot of corruption under the Mubarak regime, how were you able to be this successful and remain critical at the same time?
Orascom became a success as a result of hard work. The family had a very good reputation and we were all hard workers, and so we had no reason to fail. I had great parents who raised us well and sent us to excellent schools. My father was a businessman and he taught me everything he knew. We also came into the market at the right time, when President Sadat had started what he called the ‘open door’ policy for investments. The opportunities were there, the timing was good and we put in a lot of work in order to succeed. We, more or less, avoided the areas where there was corruption. However, I was more concerned with the lack of freedom and democracy in Egypt and the repercussions on anyone who spoke the truth; how the government interfered in our lives and opinions, the lack of free speech, free media and political activity. For me that was the worst thing about the regime. And right now there is a big mix up between real corruption and innocent people paying a price for something others did. For example, it seems it’s a crime if you bought land under the old regime at a price that was declared by the government. I don’t share this sentiment about vengeance and witch-hunting. And I hope the courts will show who’s really guilty and who’s not.
Let’s get back to the days of the revolution; did you have any say when the mobile lines were cut or was that an order?
Not only did we not have a say; it is incorporated in our license. Our license states that the government has the full right – for security reasons – to request the cutting of some of the services at their own discretion. Failure to obey these orders would result in the cancellation of our license and thousands of shareholders would have lost their money. There could also have been a disruption in the service which would have been a disaster. The problem is the law, not us obeying it. Many people tried to use this to attack us, or even attack me personally, saying I yielded to pressure, but I didn’t. Yes, there was pressure but it was a legal request and we had no choice. But when the government requested we send political slogans against the revolution, we refused because the license doesn’t state that.
Were you happy with the way the revolution unfolded, or would you have preferred for things to happen differently?
I would have preferred for things to happen differently. My best case scenario would have been President Mubarak giving his powers to the Vice President. The Vice President was already operating under the pressure of Tahrir Square. He would have given us all our rights and we wouldn’t have the military running our country. The military would have probably been happier too, because it’s a huge responsibility and they’re under a lot of pressure. It’s very difficult to run the country when it’s not their main task and when it’s a task they really didn’t want. That’s why we’re now witnessing things like the dismantling of the police and the lack of respect for policemen on the street. People don’t understand that the more they don’t recognise and honour the police, the longer they will not be safe or protected. Also the witch-hunt on the business community wouldn’t have been of the same magnitude if we had a more peaceful resolution. The economy is also suffering now and I’m worried about the political situation. Extremism is growing and this could be very dangerous. And sadly the country’s older and more prosperous generation is quite passive, when they should be very active in the next few months as we have parliamentary elections coming up. And many of the youth who went to Tahrir Square during the revolution are still determined to go to the square and dwell on the past; trying to get even with the old regime and forgetting that the future is way more important.
You’ve started a new political party, ‘The Free Egyptians’. Tell us about it and how people can become active and make a difference.
People can join this party or any of the other liberal parties. There are currently three main liberal parties on the scene. There is the old party of ‘Al Gabha Al Democrateya’ (The Democratic Front) led by Dr. Osama Ghazali Harb, who has always been a pioneer in the liberal movement and was very active during the revolution. There is the recently announced party ‘El Hezb El Masry El Democraty El Egtemaey’ (The Egyptian Social Democratic Party) led by Dr. Mohamed Aboul Ghar. And there is our party which has been recently initiated. My request is for people to compare and decide quickly, and join any of these parties, because essentially we all have the same mission and goals. We need to move very fast because otherwise come September, the field will be empty for the extremists to gain ground. And I don’t think your readers or my generation want people to come and shape our lives according to a religious model.
How does your party differ from the other liberal parties?
The biggest difference is our realisation of the element of time. We are very adamant about moving as quickly as possible. We believe we will be most successful, because forming a party is like forming a corporation from scratch, and that is a strength we have. We have very efficient party members; they’re all managers and young Egyptians who know how to build an organisation. The second difference is we didn’t approach any big shots, because they all have their own agendas and want to be recognised as big stars. We don’t want a party of stars; we want a party of the people. That’s why we are concentrating on every segment of the society; the poor, the middle class, the rich, the intellectuals, the artists, the doctors, the engineers and so on. We also want to motivate the silent majority; the ones who never went to elections before. We want to motivate the Copts of Egypt who have always been very passive. This is their time, if they don’t move now they will end up under a religious regime similar to the Iranian regime, where our lifestyle will be threatened completely. And you see some of the signs of this with the positioning of the Salafis and other extremists.
In order to mobilise large numbers, would you consider a coalition with the other liberal parties?
Of course, but what we are saying is let’s all first do our homework. Let’s all go out and secure our members. Let’s all go out and get the votes. And then, when we are near the elections, we will definitely all sit together and form a big coalition.
Many people want you to run for president. Would you consider doing that?
No, I am not considering that. First of all, I’ve always been very close to Muslims and I’ve never discriminated between human beings based on religion. 99% of my friends are Muslims, I’m very popular in the Muslim community, and I’m very proud of that. But if I run for president, I would lose a lot of love from those who want a Muslim president. I also have a lifestyle that is not really typical of a presidential candidate. Anybody who takes a public position will have to behave in a certain way, look a certain way, and won’t be able to have much of a private life. I want to serve my country without taking this further step. And there are already several good candidates for the presidency.
That’s a good point. So who will you support?
The party has to decide, because we have to do that in a democratic manner. But personally I would be very happy with either Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei or Mr. Amre Moussa.
So how can people join your party?
By visiting our website and registering online at
www.almasreyeenalahrrar.org. Egyptians abroad can also join our party, all they need to do is go online and fill in the forms.
Did you always have political ambitions to create a party if there was a free Egypt?
My ambition was always to see my country like Hong Kong, like Singapore; as one of the biggest economic powers, within a capitalist model. That is why our party is not only liberal or civic but capitalist as well. We believe in capitalism and the economy but we have a heart for social justice. In our model we want to make the poor rich, not the rich poorer. So we don’t believe in excessively high taxes; we believe any surplus money should be invested in projects to create jobs. I personally believe the economic model of the government of Dr. Ahmed Nazif was very successful in terms of GDP growth; as it grew by 6 to 7%. The problem was the gap between the rich and the poor was never addressed properly. And this is not an easy problem to solve.
Are there any steps the government can take now during this economic crisis?
There are many things that could be done right now but first they should form a small committee of prominent economists, businessmen, people who have experience with World Bank, and the IFC and ask them to work out a plan for Egypt for the coming six to nine months, to get us out of this crisis. Right now you’re seeing people writing articles in the newspapers giving their opinions but these efforts should be mobilised to be effective.
And from your knowledge, is the government planning to do this?
No, the government is trying to do this on its own but they need help. I’m trying to help on an individual basis. We helped with the stock exchange when it opened; it’s not a secret. I’ve already declared I bought around 500 million pounds of shares to support the stock exchange in the first few days and it worked. We are trying to do a campaign to fundraise for any shortages now. We are also trying to think of new projects that can be implemented fast to take some of the unemployed workforce. But it’s difficult in the current circumstances because the country is completely paralysed; first by the investigations and by the news everyday of someone going to jail. We need the youth to look forwards now, not backwards; otherwise they will be making a crucial mistake.
Is there any way your party can rally the protesters and spread that message?
We’ve tried and we welcomed them to come to us, but many of them have not yet taken the step from revolutionary protests into organised politics. But if they don’t take that step, they will have to go back to Tahrir when a regime comes that they didn’t really fight for. So people must understand it is better to be proactive, join a party, and come shape that party. They must work very hard for this party like they worked for the revolution. That is the only way to prevent the forces who want to take us back to the Middle Ages to run the country.
Well that leads me to your news channel. One of the biggest success stories of the revolution has been the boom of ONTV. Did you ever imagine the station could shape politics like the episode with Alaa El Aswany and former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik?
That was my ambition from the start but we initially went on the wrong route, until we found the right direction. I’m very happy because I actually used to call OTV my only failure. It was not failing in terms of popularity, but it failed tremendously financially. So we finally got the right formula with ONTV. Honestly it’s good for my ego because I don’t have a lot of failures in my life and I was quite depressed that this would have been a failure. But I have to thank the revolution. The boost came because we supported the revolution from day one; we took a position and that was the right decision. We covered all the events in a professional manner, and our support of the revolution made ONTV the channel everyone turned to. And now we are seeing the rewards. Of course I have to thank the excellent team behind this station. The Managing Director Albert Shafik is the hero of this channel; I want to mention him explicitly because he deserves the credit.
And what about your star anchors?
Of course they’re great but they always get all the credit! (he laughs). I can’t forget Reem Maged; even Armouti, who was very hated on Twitter, is great for ratings. And Yosri Fouda is also a great success.
Are you going to use this station to promote your party and get the message across?
This station will promote every liberal party, equally. I’m very adamant in providing my support to all parties in the same manner. There won’t be any bias; it will support all the liberal parties. It is also open to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis. You can’t be democratic and prevent any political force from appearing on your channel. The old regime used to do that but we will not do that. We had Dr. Essam el Erian (Senior Muslim Brotherhood leader) several times on our channel and we recently had Dr. Abdel Moneim Fetouh, who is from the Muslim Brotherhood, and a likely presidential candidate. We want the Muslim Brotherhood to understand all we are asking for is a fair competition. We will not play unfairly, and I hope they will not either.
Do you feel there is any way to bring the two sides closer together?
How can you come closer to someone who doesn’t acknowledge you? Who says a Copt cannot be this and cannot do that? And that a woman is less than a man? It’s a fundamental point. If you are not acknowledging me, how can I come closer to your side? This is a fundamental issue. They like to portray us as anti-Islam, but there is no Copt who is more Muslim than me. They have to understand God created everyone equal; Christians and Muslims, women and men. God is not unfair to favour anyone based on his religion, because he chose our religion. We were all born with our religions. How can we quarrel and waste time on this? If some fanatics tried to burn down a mosque, like what happened with the church this year, I would defend that mosque myself because it’s the house of God. Any such violent acts on religion are wrong.
But what can be done about this new violence we are seeing?
The rule of law and order; implementing the law vigorously and clearly. Not through ‘magales mosalha’, like cutting someone’s ear then ask him to apologise. You must implement the law. If you kill, you get convicted. If you burn a church or destroy it, you go to jail. That is exactly what should happen.
You wanted people to vote no in the referendum over constitutional amendments, but the majority voted yes; under these conditions, what is the best way to move forward?
When we went to vote on the amendments we were given very little time to explain to people why they should vote no. So out of ignorance, or out of religious pressure, or out of the fear of chaos or having a Christian president, many people ended up voting yes. Now we are in the same situation. We only have a few months to gather our forces and create liberal parties and go against the party that has been there for 80 years.
Do you think the liberal parties have a chance if people get organised?
Even if we didn’t have a chance we should not let the country go without a real fight. You cannot just sit there and do nothing and let them win without a fight. We have a chance if we unite and we all move. But what I’m seeing now is the privileged society is wasting time talking about joining political parties, and not actually joining them. Instead they should just join one and work. Everyone should go down to their community or village and educate people. Everybody should go back to their roots, as we need to reach all the small villages, to explain to them what their choices are, what our party is all about and why they should stand up for Egypt. Because we don’t want a regime similar to the one in Iran.
There seems to be a lack of understanding of how democracy works…
Not only that, there’s also a lack of understanding about the urgency of time. I see it. People tell me, ‘I haven’t made up my mind yet on which party I’m going to join, I want to explore’. Explore what? You have three choices: the extreme fundamentalist parties, the liberal parties and the leftist parties. You should know where you stand and join any of the parties and go and work inside that party. People come up to me and give me advice, but I tell them ‘thank you I don’t need advice; I need people to come in and work. Once you’re in the party I’ll listen to you.’ Right now, I’m giving all my time to the members of our party.
Well a lot of people seem to want to join your party…
It’s not my party, it’s our party. As I said, I will not run for president and I will not be the president of the party. We want the members of the party to elect their own leader, not to have a forced leader from the start. I just take credit for the idea of starting the party and I don’t want more than that. I want someone else to take credit for the success of this party.
Yes but your association is a great thing, as your popularity brings people there.
I’m honoured, and that’s why I decided to start like this. I know I have a lot of popularity on the Muslim street and as a Christian, other Christians will trust me. And the liberals and the capitalists will trust me, so I can bring a lot to this party. But I want people to join and to act. You need to take the time to fill in the form, go to the shahr el akary (registration office), do the power of attorney, because the first 5000 will be the founding members of the party and after that we won’t need the power of attorney. I want people to have the same enthusiasm they had on January 25th. Egyptian youth must understand that a revolution can’t continue endlessly. It has to reach a day where it changes from a revolution to a political movement. And the only vehicle right now is to form a party. That’s why I’m concentrating all my time on the future. We are looking forward because we want to move the country forward.
Where are your party headquarters?
We want to find and renovate a building in downtown because we believe this party is going to be big and it will last, so we don’t mind investing a lot. As for the funding, I’m honoured that most of the founding members are now chipping in with their own savings, so it’s not at all just me financing the party.
Do you have any information about all the businessmen who left the country?
I don’t and I am very unhappy about this. It doesn’t look like they’re coming back soon.
Do you have a final message for Egypt’s youth?
Please join any of the liberal parties. Don’t waste time debating too much. All of the three big liberal movements are made of credible people, who want to work for the country. They have the same principles; some of them are more on the left, some of them are more on the right, like myself. Make your choice, choose a party, go in and work very hard. Try to expand the number of participants because we have a big fight coming up in September and if we are weak, we will lose.
What do you love most about Egypt?
What do you hate most?
The lack of discipline, the traffic, the lack of cleanliness on our streets and our ethics in keeping our country clean.
What’s your best quality?
I’m a fighter.
What’s you biggest weakness?
What keeps you up at night?
Worrying about my children and Egypt’s future. Thinking about all the stress I’ve been going through the past few years. The last four years were extremely nerve wrecking and stressful for me, so that kept me up at night. When we have the elections, if we create a power that will balance the next parliament, that will make me very happy and hopefully I will sleep better.
Who do you admire most?
My dad. I haven’t seen a better father than him. He’s a very intelligent and modest man. Actually out of the four of us (my father and my brothers), he is by far the most modest. He is also charming and has a huge sense of humor; his face portrays trust and the suffering of the years. His only problem is that he worries too much.
Does he worry about you?
What is the one item you cannot travel without?
If there was a book written about your life what would the title be?
Here is a man that no-one ever managed to twist his arm.
And if the book was made into a movie who would you want to play your character?
Robert De Niro or Al Pacino
Did you ever imagine that you would reach this level of success?
I never had a doubt. I knew somehow that I was going to be extremely successful and that I was going to be different. I always felt God has a plan for me.
And what’s the secret to this success?
Good family background, good education, hard work, honesty, reputation, and mainly God’s blessings. My faith in God allows me not to fear anything or anyone. I take risks because I always feel God is on my side. And with that I can’t lose.
What has been the greatest part of your success on a personal level?
My freedom. I have the maximum freedom because of my success. It’s freedom of movement, worry, speech and the freedom to do things for the greater good.
What are your favourite hobbies?
Listening to music and going out at night; they both put me in a relaxing mood. I also love watching movies at home and going to the cinema.
When do you have time to watch movies?
Late at night and when I don’t go out. I also go to the cinema once every fortnight.
And when do you have time to sleep?
I sleep four hours at night and an hour and a half in the afternoon.
When are you happiest?
When I’m playing with my kids.
What is your ultimate dream?
To see the day when Egypt becomes one of the top five countries in the world.
Do you have any personal dreams left?
I would like to see the wealth I’ve accumulated go into areas where I can do a lot of good. Once we’ve finished with this critical year in Egypt, I’d like to do work in the south of Sudan because the water issue in Egypt is very important and the only way to help is by developing the new Sudan; because the water goes there first before going north. And they deserve help, as they are completely under the poverty line.
I’d also like to do a lot of good in my home town Sohag. And in Pakistan, as I have a special love for the Pakistani people. Also in Myanmar in Burma, as people are oppressed there and their lives are very difficult.