Onsi Sawiris, head of Egypt's richest business family, dies at 90

The businessman leaves behind a multi-billion dollar empire in construction and tourism

Onsi Sawiris

Onsi Sawiris, the patriarch of Egypt's richest and most prominent business family, has died, his family said on Tuesday. He was 90.
With a net worth of nearly $1 billion, Sawiris' life was an example of how resolve and entrepreneurial talent could overcome the day-to-day bias faced by Egypt's Christian minority.
Beside Egypt's experiment with socialism in the 1950s and 1960s, Sawiris and his family also had to endure the hostility shown to them by the government of Mohammed Morsi of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood. That government was in office for a year before the military removed Morsi in 2013, amid a wave of street protests against his divisive rule.

Sarawis' success as a businessman showed a new side to Egyptian society, one where many people cast aside religious bigotry and work constructively together.
Ever grateful for his success in life, Sarawis gave back generously to help some of Egypt's poorest.

He funded scholarships at prestigious Western universities, as well as literary awards and an annual film festival that has proved to be by far Egypt's best.
"He lived by three principles: Fear of God, honesty and perseverance," his widow, Youssriyah Luzah, said in a television interview.
Born in August, 1930 in the southern Sohag province to a Coptic Orthodox family, Sawiris graduated from Cairo University in 1950 with a degree in agricultural studies. He began working right after graduation on farmland bought with his lawyer father's lifetime savings.
He soon found out that raising crops was not what he was meant to do.
"I realised that only those with roots in farming are the ones best suited to grow crops … I tried to mingle with and live among peasants, but I realised after a while that they have more experience in farming than me, a university degree in agriculture or not," Sawiris, who retrained traces of an Upper Egyptian Arabic accent until the end, told a television interviewer.
He wasted no time moving into the construction industry, which became a lifelong passion and the key to amassing considerable wealth.
He kicked off his career shift by founding a company that specialised in building roads and digging canals. "My first job was digging wells in 18 different localities in Upper Egypt. I was overjoyed. It was a turning point in my life. Construction has since been my passion," he said.
The company grew quickly, attracting the attention of the enforcers of president Gamal Abdel Nasser's socialist regime in the 1960s. It was partially nationalised in 1961 and fully taken over by the state in 1965.
Determined not to abandon is dreams, he left Egypt in search of better business opportunities, moving to Libya in 1966. He worked in construction in the oil-rich North African state until he finally returned home in the 1970s, a time when President Anwar Sadat was busy dismantling Abdel Nasser's socialist policies and freeing the economy.
"I was in Libya for 12 years. I gained a lot of experience there, but the most important thing I learned there was how to haggle down prices. I have not bought anything since before I haggled first."
Sawiris swiftly created a construction company, ORASCOM, that is now one of Egypt's largest. He diversified his business in the 1980s and 1990s, moving into tourism, computer services and telecommunications.
He is survived by his widow Youssriyah Louzah, an iconic figure in voluntary community work, and his three sons Naguib, Nasef and Sameeh. All three are business tycoons with considerable wealth in the fields of construction and tourism.
Swairis will be buried at the family cemetery in El Gouna, a Red Sea resort town built by the family. No date has been announced for the burial.

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