Christian billionaire positions self to be next president of Egypt
A Christian billionaire hopes to become the next president of Egypt.
Naguib Sawiris, 57, founder of Orascom Telegram, launched recently the political party Al Masryeen Al Ahrar (The Free Egyptians) which he hopes will help him land the presidency in the country’s autumn elections.
Sawiris, who founded the largest mobile phone business in the Middle East in 2001, has long held a reputation as a businessman, philanthropist and art collector. Now, he is throwing his hat in the political ring.
“I have decided to be more focused on social and political work, aiming to play a role in the transformation of post-revolution Egypt into civil democracy,” Sawiris said, when he stepped down as Chairman of the family –owned Orascom Telecom earlier this year, according to The Huffington Post.
Presently, the Egyptian military is serving as a de facto government and has stated that it will do so until elections take place in autumn. Former leader Hosni Mubark was deposed in February, and is being tried in Cairo on charges of corruption and conspiracy to kill protesters from the Egyptian spring.
Sawiris seeks to establish a secular government in Egypt. In a speech he gave to London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, where he promoted his new government party, he told students, “If I have to choose between my identity and allegiance to Egypt or Christianity, I choose Egypt,” according to the blog, The Romantic Revolutionary.
Sawiris stressed the importance of vigilance to ensure that Egypt’s politics and religion are not hijacked by extremists saying, “We hope to see Egypt as Turkey, and not Iran,” The Romantic Revolutionary blog reported.
Egypt has been racked with faith-related disturbance since before and after Mubarak. Last Jan. 1, a bomb exploded in Alexandria killing 21 Coptic Christians and injuring 100.
In March, up to 4,000 Muslims attacked Coptic homes and set fire to the Church of St. Mina and St. George in Soul village, some 19 miles from Cairo.
The latter incident was triggered by a relationship between a Christian, Ashraf Iskander, 40, and a Muslim woman. In a “reconciliation,” it was decided that Iskander must leave the village as Muslims set his house on fire.
The family of the Muslim woman became victims, themselves, as two men were killed. One is the father of the Muslim woman, who refused to do an “honor killing” of his daughter, prompting the man’s cousin to kill him.
The second man to die is the cousin, who was killed by the Muslim woman’s brother, as an act of vengeance. The Muslims in the village blamed the Christians for everything.
Incidents such as these give rise to the question of whether Egypt is prepared for democracy. Sawiris however is in a position to give it a try. He has the backing of the family’s tremendous telecom company, said to be “the largest private employer and largest Egyptian company by market capitalization,” Time magazine reported.
The family also owns Orascom Hotels and Development, Orascom Construction, and OTV network. Sawiris was ranked no. 310 on Forbes Billionaire List. In Egypt, he is ranked No. 2, while his father, Onsi Sawiris is No. 1., and the third richest man in Egypt is Sawiris’ younger brother.
Sawiris is also known as an art patron who once stirred up controversy when he posted cartoons of Micky and Minnie Mouse wearing Muslim traditional clothes. He received death threats from Muslims worldwide, and later issued an apology for the tweet.
Outside of the corporate world he is a prominent art collector, with plans to establish a national museum where his personal collection of modern and contemporary art can be displayed.
Relations with North Korea
There is however the question of the close relationship the family has with North Korea. The Sawiris’ Orascom Group renovated North Korea’s Ryugyong hotel, and has been involved in that country’s mobile telephone infrastructure for the last three years.
But the family business relationship with North Korea goes back 40 years, with Orascom investing $400 million, widely believed to have been used to keep Kim Jong Il in power, and to smoothen the transition of power to his son, Kim Jong Un. Egypt is a U.S. ally, while North Korea is not. Sawiris can look forward to walking a tightrope between the two.
Whether Sawiris sees his jump into the political realm as an opportunity or a genuine act of altruism is not clear. It could be a little bit of both. What also remains to be seen is whether the Egyptian spring was calling for democracy, much less a secular government.
However, by throwing his hat into the ring, Sawiris is posing new options and possibilities to the country. His influence is strong enough to drive others to heed his call, and he does lend hope to faith minorities in this Muslim-majority nation.