Naguib Sawiris talks about revolution, democracy and Islamism

“The organisation is named the Muslim Brotherhood and, under the cloak of this name, everything that has nothing to do with Islam, such as killing, bombing and assassinations of political figures, is being perpetrated," said Egyptian businessman Naguib Sawiris.
Sunday 02/06/2019
Egyptian businessman and politician Naguib Sawiris. (Twitter) 
A dissection of regional woes. Egyptian businessman and politician Naguib Sawiris. (Twitter)

Naguib Sawiris is an Egyptian businessman and politician with a fortune worth more than $3 billion. He ranks 577th among the world’s richest people. His comments raise controversy and his investments attract attention of investors and governments.

Sawiris has founded many companies and television channels and is politically active in post-revolution Egypt. Most of his investments are in the telecommunications and media sectors. He is the founder of El Gouna Film Festival. He once offered to buy an island off the Mediterranean coast and allocate it to Syrian immigrants.

The Arab Weekly spoke with Sawiris during the Cannes Film Festival, beginning the conversation with the “Arab spring.” Sawiris said the movement was not totally successful but that does not mean that it was not needed, that it was a mistake or that it was, as some governments claim, the result of foreign plots.

The biggest mistake of the “Arab spring” was to link religion and politics, he said.

It did not succeed for several reasons, including the failure of the liberal and secular forces to unite. That was the case in Egypt where independent liberal secular formations, harassed by the regime and lacking experience, failed to constitute a unified front to oppose the Islamic current and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Sawiris sparked controversy in Egypt because he criticised ties of some Islamic forces to extremism.

“It isn’t me who links them (to extremism). They are the ones who linked themselves,” said Sawiris. “The organisation is named the Muslim Brotherhood and, under the cloak of this name, everything that has nothing to do with Islam, such as killing, bombing and assassinations of political figures, is being perpetrated.”

Egypt’s revolution was launched by liberal left-wing secular forces that were then joined by the independent Egyptian liberal right. The Muslim Brotherhood came on-board much later, when the revolutionary momentum succeeded. The Brotherhood had hesitated to take part in the demonstrations of January 25, 2011, because of an agreement it had with authorities.

Sawiris said Egyptian capitalists are not keen on taking risks. He pointed out that the first ones to take to the streets in Egypt were supporters of the Kefaya movement, which is a liberal socialist secular movement.

Kefaya’s members protested at a very difficult time and were attacked. They were followed by supporters of the April 6 Youth Movement, before it was taken over by the Muslim Brotherhood. That’s when Egyptian workers, farmers and businessmen joined the demonstrations.

In 2011, Sawiris participated in the establishment of the Free Egyptians Party, which has a liberal platform. He declared that he became involved in politics because he was afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had sought to seize power following the January 25 revolution.

Sawiris said: “All issues in business put you face-to-face with two choices: profit or loss. In politics there can be more than one right opinion.”

“For example, we had asked to postpone the elections until the liberal current had time to organise itself structurally and better train its cadres for the elections but the army rejected that and elections were organised in six months,” he said. “The result was the disintegration of the liberal movement. This is the problem that you’re going to face in Tunisia during the coming phase.”

Tunisia is preparing for legislative and presidential elections late this year. The results of the vote can affect the investment climate.

“If the Islamic current wins, investors will be frightened away, especially that tourism is a component of the Tunisian state,” Sawiris said. “Tourism means freedom, not the freedom to sin as some claim, but by ‘freedom,’ it is meant the rights and natural freedoms of individuals to conduct their lives as they deem fit, without interference or pressure.”

“Tunisia is a country (whose economy) is based mainly on the tourism industry,” continued Sawiris. “If the (Islamist) movement wins the elections, it will be difficult for anyone to invest or build a hotel in Tunisia, let alone forget the terrorist attacks of Sousse and the other terrorist threats, all of which are likely to be on the minds of tourists and investors alike.”

Sawiris said the Tunisian experience remains a distinct example. The appointment of Rene Trabelsi, a Tunisian Jew, as minister of tourism, attests to the fact that nationality in Tunisia supersedes religious affiliation.

Sawiris said all citizens should have a degree of awareness of the importance of the country’s interests so they can achieve better educational and health standards and jobs can be created to move forward with their country and preserve the democratic experience.

Some say Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, countries that experienced the “Arab spring,” are at an early stage of political education and that they had not seen freedom for nearly 60 years. Sawiris, however, said those arguments are a pretext to pre-empt democracy.

“We always need to start with the first step and we have to make mistakes,” he said.

“There were mistakes made during the experience of the January 25 revolution but, when our democratic duty calls, we all become in the first grade of the democracy school and we have to move forward. The West, for example, reached full democracy after more than a thousand years of wars. Therefore, we have to start from the beginning and to be prepared not be ashamed of that.”

Regarding Islamist movements’ expression of willingness to engage in the democratic process, separate religion from politics and embrace civil action in their political activity, Sawiris said: “The problem is that they do not do what they say they do.”

He said the Tunisian experience is much better than Egypt’s and that measures taken after the Tunisian revolution were better than Egypt’s. He said the Ennahda Movement in Tunisia learnt the lesson of the Muslim Brotherhood’s experience in Egypt, retreated a bit after the fall of the Morsi regime in Egypt and decided there was no alternative but dialogue.

Sawiris talked about the Coptic Church the same way he spoke about Islamist currents — that is its need to stay distant from politics. “The Coptic Church in Egypt can influence the political positions of the Coptic citizen,” he said. “This is wrong. The church must stay away from politics.”

Some say that the end of armed radicalism of Islamists could usher in a new era for Arab peoples but Sawiris said the crisis will continue as long as violence and killings are justified through Quranic scripture and young people continue to be misled.

He added that the first step is to address violent discourse and then to reform education, create real job opportunities for young people and fill their time with useful activities, such as art, sports and culture.

Sawiris pointed out that there was an entire paradigm that needed to be overcome if the violence, regression and failure in the Arab world were to end.

He said what Arab businessmen do for future generations is not sufficient and that they lag behind their Western counterparts. There are a few Arab businessmen who play this kind of role, he said

Sawiris criticised the heavy bureaucracy in Arab countries. That allows officials to act as though they are doing potential investors favours when they provide investment opportunities or when they solve problems or issues related to investments when, in reality, it is the investors who provide a service, creating opportunities, increasing the size of the country’s labour force and paying taxes.

Sawiris’ investments in Algeria generated controversy and the matter is in the courts but the political transformation in Algeria could change the situation for the better, he said.

Sawiris said the lack of cooperation is the Arab world’s Achilles heel in forming a common Arab market. He praised the European experience and the developments in the African continent. “The Africans have also succeeded. There are five economic groups in Africa that have abolished customs, tax and other barriers,” he said.

“Today there is an African supra-regional grouping with these five African groups keeping the continent economically open. This effort is led by Rwanda, the weakest country. Thanks to it, Africa will proceed on this way forward while we Arabs still do not know what to do and do nothing but talk.”

He said it is the responsibility of Arab business leaders to strengthen foundations of education and sound intellectual thinking and give the next generations an opportunity for real education, even if that means sending them abroad under the condition that they would later return home.

Sawiris owns shares in the Tunisian television channel Nessma TV and founded Egypt’s ONTV television channel.

“I had an experience establishing a TV channel in Egypt and it was a great success,” he said. “I founded the channel due to my fears of the Muslim Brotherhood’s grip on power in Egypt. There had to be a liberal current to counterbalance them and this current needed a media platform and a channel like ONTV, which is indeed a liberal platform and I’m proud of it.”

Despite ONTV’s success, businesspeople do not recommend investing in media because “it will be a difficult and financially failing project that will create many enmities,” Sawiris said.

Sawiris said: “Investing in media is not a problem but, when you invest in the media, you have to work in an organised fashion while avoiding clashing with the state. The state also must not take over every channel and then ask investors to compete because this competition would be unfair.”