The sage of Orascom Telecom

Naguib Sawiris, the telecom billionaire of Egypt, stepped into a new role during the January 25th revolution: he was one of the "wise men" who helped mediate between the protesters, the government and the army.

Illustration by Chris Burke for The National
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Sitting on a stage at an entrepreneurship conference last November, Naguib Sawiris was surrounded by screens showing the live "tweets" of the audience.

Fadi Ghandour, the chief executive of Aramex, asked him for his definition of "change".

"Change would mean to me if everybody sitting here would overturn the governments we have," Mr Sawiris said without hesitation.

"It bothers me that there is disrespect for the rule of law and order," he said.

It was a prescient statement from the Egyptian billionaire in charge of Orascom Telecom just months before Tunisians overthrew their president and protesters in Egypt forced Hosni Mubarak to resign as president after three decades of rule.

Mr Sawiris, 56, long known for being outspoken and taking big risks in business, emerged as a stabilising factor during the recent protests in Egypt.

He was one of the so-called "wise men", a middle-ground group made up of businessmen and intellectuals, that helped to mediate between the opposition and the government.

One of the group's major victories was to put pressure on the government to release Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who helped lead the use of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter to trigger the protests.

Meanwhile, other major businessmen in Egypt were either quietly waiting out the storm in their villas or being publicly attacked as corrupt. Dozens of businesses are under investigation because of their close ties to the Mubarak government.

"He's a different breed of businessman in the Arab world," Mr Ghandour said of Mr Sawiris this week. "It shows up that the business community is not necessarily always on the sidelines."

Mr Sawiris, the eldest of three sons in charge of Orascom companies, has always been one to speak his mind, but he has also walked a fine line. He came out publicly against Mr Mubarak stepping down, preferring that he keep a ceremonial role until elections this year.

"I was not an advocate that Mubarak had to go," he told the US television interviewer Charlie Rose last week. "I did not wish this end for him … He has done a lot of good in this country. We were a totally socialistic country. He opened the door for investment, infrastructure was built."

But he did not mince his words about Mr Mubarak's authoritarian ways, saying that fake charges could be brought against people who went a little far with their criticism of the government.

Indeed, at the entrepreneurship conference last November, in Dubai, Mr Sawiris avoided making direct statements about the government in his own country. But he is not an easy man to stifle.

Forbes listed him last year as the 374th richest person in the world, with a personal worth of US$2.5 billion (Dh9.18bn).

Orascom Telecom has some 500 million customers in Algeria, Pakistan, Egypt, Bangladesh and Canada, as well as investments in telecommunications companies in Zimbabwe, Namibia and Burundi.

"The size of his business gives him comfort to be able to be vocal and aggressive the way he is," Mr Ghandour says of Mr Sawiris.

Orascom Telecom has made a name for itself by going into challenging markets, often with leverage. It was among the first to set up in Iraq.

In the days leading up to January 25, the beginning of the Egyptian uprising, Mr Sawiris was in North Korea meeting Kim Jong-il, the country's leader, about a joint venture to build a 3G network there.

He later told Bloomberg TV there was a subtle political element to all telecommunications businesses.

"Even when people accuse me of doing business in countries like North Korea, I am there because I provided the people of North Korea with their right to speak," he said.

Mr Sawiris says he gets his drive for success and his willingness to fight from his father, Onsi Sawiris, and from his faith in God.

Onsi, the patriarch of the family, who is now in his late 70s, had to deal with two previous presidents of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser and his successor, Anwar Sadat.

Nasser nationalised the Sawiris construction business in the 1960s, leading the family to relocate to Libya. When trouble arose there, the family returned to Egypt. It was an important lesson about rising to the challenge, the son says.

"I saw how important it is to be persistent and a fighter," Mr Sawiris said in Dubai last November.

"Just keep on hammering and it will happen. If you yield at the first obstacle, then you are not an entrepreneur."

Eventually, the three sons were each given their start in the Orascom empire. Naguib, the eldest, took over the telecoms company, while Nassef, the youngest, led the construction business, and Samih became the head of the property and hotel development company. The three branches are now legally separate businesses, but the brothers remain close, Mr Sawiris says.

The family also has had to contend with being Coptic Christians in a predominantly Muslim country, a situation Mr Sawiris said inspired him to become rich.

"As a Christian, my chances of political life in Egypt are limited, but my ambitions have no limits," he said at the Dubai conference. "I thought maybe if I can become very rich, money is power and money can be used for some good stuff."

The family is involved in a range of charitable causes, including an initiative to send more than 100 young Egyptians abroad for university every year.

Lately, Mr Sawiris has said he would like to focus more on his philanthropic work.

He has been in talks with Russia's VimpelCom to sell $6.5bn of the Italian company Wind Telecom's assets and a more than 50 per cent stake in Orascom Telecom. If the deal goes through, it would amount to Mr Sawiris taking a step back and allowing others to be more involved.

One regret, he says, was not being able to be in Tahrir Square at the height of the protests.

"I was dying to go," he told Charlie Rose, but explained he could not be seen as partial while mediating between parties. "If I want to be an honest broker, I can't take sides too much."

Mr Sawiris appears to have no plans to take a political role in the new Egypt. After Mr Mubarak stepped down, the "wise men" disbanded.

His goal now is to keep making Egypt better.

"I want my kids to live here and hopefully die here like I'm hopefully going to live here and die here," he said.