Egyptian business tycoon Naguib Sawiris is an international economic figure and a notable character on Egypt’s economic and political arenas. Watani’s Mariam Rifaat talked to Mr Sawiris about the political party he founded, al-Misriyeen al-Ahrar (The Free Egyptians) and his aspirations for Egypt’s political process, while Katrine Faragallah tapped into his views on business, terrorism, and local and global politics.
You may love him or you may loathe him, but you can never be impartial towards billionaire businessman Naguib Sawiris. Many Egyptians see Mr Sawiris as a model businessman who rose to the pinnacle of success inside and outside the country, and a staunch patriot who works to help place Egypt on the path of democracy and secularism. Yet many others see him as a businessman bent on using his financial clout to manipulate politics in Egypt, or as a too-successful Copt who ought not be given the opportunity to have a say in running the country or drawing its future. It is a rare Egyptian who holds no strong views vis-à-vis Mr Sawiris.
Naguib Sawiris was born in Cairo in 1954, the elder of three sons to parents of Upper Egyptian origin. The father, Onsi Sawiris, was a trader, and the mother, Yusriya Loza, a homemaker. The three sons were given excellent education in Egypt then sent abroad to top-notch universities where they earned degrees in engineering and business. The father and three junior Sawirises grew to be superior businessmen and industrialists each in his own right, whereas the mother is among the scions of voluntary social work in Egypt. The family, a close-knit clan, has founded the Sawiris Foundation which undertakes projects that speak of their serious attitude towards social responsibility.
Watani talked to Naguib Sawiris about a host of his pet topics which, moreover, top the list on public interest.
To start with, Mr Sawiris, how do you see the recent string of terrorist attacks, the ones in Paris being perhaps the most prominent?
It all started with the US intervention in Iraq under what was termed the Gulf War. Initially, I supported this war on grounds that it rid Iraq of a horrible dictator, Saddam Hussein. My support was based on my hatred of despotism and of dictators that ruled with iron and fire. But I was wrong. What came after the despot was toppled was not democracy, but a bitter prolonged sectarian conflict, and the dismantling of the Iraqi army and State institutions. The result: Iraq has been transformed into a number of warring minor States that have made life for Iraqis intolerable. The same has taken place with States that underwent the Arab Spring.
Now the conflict has produced Daesh. Before, terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda would plant bombs, hijack planes or conduct specific attacks; now these groups have territory, capitals, armies, and income from selling oil. They are supported and aided by States such as Qatar, Turkey and others.
When Obama became President of the US, he admitted the Gulf War was a mistake. But what did he do to remedy that horrendous mistake? Nothing. The Egyptian folk proverb says: Whoever destroys must repair. Yet the president of the mightiest power in the world admits his country was behind the disaster in Iraq and does nothing. He sees terrorism destroying the lives of innocent people and does nothing. He sees terrorists beheading western reporters and social workers, as well as 20 Egyptian Christians, and burning a Jordanian alive, and does nothing. He sees Middle East Christians sold into slavery and their women turned into bondwomen, and does nothing. He sees priceless world heritage in the Middle East bombed and demolished, and does nothing. This is tantamount to saying he has nothing to do with battling terrorism.
Then comes Paris. Unarmed civilians, normal people were killed while at a football match, attending a concert, or simply having a pizza. President Obama’s response was to merely say the US would increase its airstrikes against Daesh. He never even hinted at all-out war against terrorism. If you don’t want to do that on your own, I say, at least take the initiative to form a serious international coalition to fight terrorism. Egypt, for its part, would readily participate.
How do you view the 31 October Russian plane crash over Sinai in which 224 passengers and crew were killed, and the international response to it?
Personally, I am not convinced a bomb brought down the plane. Unless there is conclusive evidence of explosive material in the plane—none has so far been produced—I do not believe the bomb theory. International response against travel to Egypt is in my view rather hasty. Yet it is understandable that many should feel it better to be safe than sorry. Anyhow, we still await the result of the official international investigation committee [formed of representatives from Egypt, Russia, Germany, Ireland, and France.
What can be done until then?
The government should attempt to regain the world’s lost confidence in our airport security. We could ask international security firms to check security measures at our airports and hand us reports on the shortcomings so we could remedy them. Once we do that, they can again check our airports and issue reports to clear us of negligence or poor security. There’s nothing wrong with admitting shortcoming and remedying it.
In the first round of Egypt’s parliamentary elections, al-Misriyeen al-Ahrar won 41 seats, the highest win for a single bloc in parliament. Do you expect similar success in the second round?
After our initial success, the party was subjected to a harsh media attack by its competitors. Al-Misriyeen al-Ahrar has been branded as a party for the Copts, but we represent Copts and Muslims alike. We are a thoroughly Egyptian party that works for the benefit of Egypt above all else. We are a liberal, democratic party that believes in the separation of State and religion. If Egyptians believe in what we believe, they should go down and vote. Refraining from voting only brings in MPs that do not represent the people. So it is the people’s responsibility to go down and vote. The reruns for the second phase of the parliamentary elections will be held on 30 November and 1 – 2 December, and should round up the final results of the elections.
Do you think the ‘couch party’ is still alive and kicking? [The ‘couch party’ is a denomination coined by the Egyptian public to denote the silent majority, those who would rather sit at home and post their political views on the social media, but do not actively participate in politics or public activity.]
Members of the couch party only take action when they feel Egypt is threatened. This effectively gets them moving. We saw such action in the huge numbers that participated in the post-Arab Spring elections when the Islamist Muslim Brothers (MB) were attempting to gain power in Egypt, and again in the 30 June 2013 massive revolution which finally led to the downfall of the MB. Today, no such threat exists, which is why many prefer to just stay home.
There are also two other reasons which contribute to the low voter turnout. One is the complicated voting process, and the other is the disillusionment with the detention of young people according to the protest law. But all this is no excuse to refrain from voting. I was raised to respect and honour that duty; I never missed an election, and I make it a point to be in Egypt whenever there is an election so I can cast my ballot.
There have been plenty of criticism waged at businessmen who ‘play politics’. Do you see any conflict between being a businessman and a politician?
A businessman is a citizen who has the right to be in politics, as long as he does not manipulate politics to serve his interests. I don’t believe, however, that he should be elected to parliament, since this may create a conflict of interest in specific cases.
Al-Misriyeen al-Ahrar have declared that the party is out to obliterate poverty. This is a huge task; can you tell us how would the party go about it?
The first thing to do is to reduce State subsidy to make sure it benefits only those who need it. It is not right that I drive a Mercedes and pay a subsidised price for fuel, the same price paid by a poor chap who drives an old car. It is not right that I should buy my bread at a subsidised price, same as a man with limited means. Once State subsidy is managed correctly, huge sums may be saved for the State budget.
Another important step would be to stop the haemorrhage of public money caused by public sector firms. We incur annual losses of EGP30 – 40 billion on account of these firms, under the pretext that they provide jobs. What jobs, when the firms are losing money? They have to be shut down, the workers properly compensated, and better investment opportunities created to generate better jobs. It is no big or impossible deal; it’s just that we never before took decisive steps in this direction.
How do you see the role of businessmen and the social responsibility of the rich?
Businessmen or wealthy individuals driven by a need to serve their community should do so; there is plenty to be done on that level and to assume such a role is highly commendable. But this is the role of all individuals; it is not the major role of a businessman. I see the major responsibility of businessmen as creating businesses that generate jobs and wealth, and paying their taxes.
You always said you came from a family that paid their taxes regularly. Any comment?
I have always said I am proud to be among the highest taxpayers in Egypt. I come from a family that has for 70 years been committed to promptly paying their taxes. Taxes are our contribution to benefit the people. Some Egyptians used to evade paying their taxes at the time when taxes amounted to some 60 per cent of your profit; they saw this as too much. But Youssef Boutros-Ghali, who was Finance Minister in the years prior to the 2011 Arab Spring, reformed the taxation system and brought taxes down to some 20 per cent, tripling Egypt’s tax revenue. Individuals who work and make profits should pay their taxes; I see tax evasion as robbing the country and the people.
When the MB came to power in the wake of the Arab Spring, I was vocal in my opposition to their policies. They attempted to retaliate by accusing me of tax evasion. The court, however, cleared me of the charge. Does it make any sense that someone who never evaded paying his taxes should suddenly do so?
Do you regret having involved yourself in politics?
I only started getting actively involved in politics in the wake of the Arab Spring. The ‘revolutionist youth’ appeared to vanish from the scene, and it was obvious to me then that the MB and the Islamists in the wider sense would attempt to get hold of Egypt. I realised that we had to form a political party that would challenge them. How else could we have confronted them on the political arena? Now Egypt is secular, but we should methodically work to build the country and its economy.
The public should understand that it is in the interest of business to have a stable Egypt. This coincides with the interest of all Egyptians; there is no conflict between the interest of business and that of Egypt.
You now own 53 per cent of Euronews, and visitors have observed balanced news reporting on the channel. Is there a connection with your being a major stake holder?
It is actually the other way round. I bought a stake in Euronews because I found it to be a credible, balanced news channel. In the wake of the 30 June 2013 Egyptian revolution that rid Egypt of the MB, I was severely disappointed in the reporting by the major world news channels. The BBC and CNN for instance persisted in branding the revolution a coup; how could it be a coup when some 30 million Egyptians had taken to the streets? And this was not the only instance; more twisted news reporting followed and is still ongoing. Euronews, however, was more balanced. I respected that, so I decided to buy a majority share.
Finally, Mr Sawiris, what would you like to tell Egypt’s people at this point?
It is important to realise that our economy, after years of post-Arab Spring turmoil, is in a deplorable condition and must be put back on track. This means difficult decisions have to be taken, decisions that will make many people unhappy. But we must understand that it’s no use taking more tranquillisers, the patient now needs surgery. This is going to be painful. We need to rally all our strength to take it and emerge winners.
Photos by Tawfiq Adel
25 November 2015