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Naguib Sawiris. (1--Sarah Dea/Sarah Dea for The Globe and Mail)
Naguib Sawiris. (1--Sarah Dea/Sarah Dea for The Globe and Mail)

The billionaire caught up in Egypt's reform and Canada's mobile debate Add to ...

His name stood out. There among the list of opposition groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Wafd and Tagammu parties that were meeting with Egyptian Vice-President Omar Suleiman on Sunday, it appeared: "also attending was Naguib Sawiris."

What was the telecom billionaire - the man financing upstart Canadian wireless provider Wind Mobile and Egypt's richest person - doing in a meeting discussing how the country could get out of its current political crisis?

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Mr. Sawiris, whose investment in a start-up mobile-phone company sparked a highly charged debate on foreign ownership rules in Canada, leads a group of businessmen and other prominent Egyptians seeking middle ground between the opposing sides in the crisis.

While some of the harder-core protest leaders see the plan as a way to divide the opposition and weaken it, others see the group's proposal to allow Mr. Mubarak to remain as President, but to cede much of his authority to Mr. Suleiman, as a compromise way out of the crisis.

Mr. Sawiris, executive chairman of Orascom Telecom Holding SAE, became remarkably rich during the Mubarak years, but his sympathies are not with the President. "He is appalled at the amount of corruption he encountered," said a businessman who knows him well.

Mr. Sawiris's company bankrolled a Toronto entrepreneur's attempt to break into the Canadian wireless industry in 2008. But the Egyptian billionaire's stake raised red flags for regulators in Ottawa, and it took an extraordinary intervention by the Conservative government to allow Wind Mobile to launch. The company now faces another obstacle after a Federal Court overturned the government's decision on Friday.

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In Egypt, the Sawiris group calls itself "the dialogue committee." Made up of some leading business people and intellectuals, the Egyptian media have dubbed them "the wise men."

The group hopes to lend its weight to what its members see as a compromise position.

Besides calling for Mr. Mubarak to assume a more ceremonial role, the group's proposals, made public late last week, call for an independent judicial committee to propose amendments to the constitution that will allow for free and fair elections, an end to the country's 30-year state of emergency and an end to interference with any forms of media.

"We wrote this statement because we are concerned that the legitimate demands made by the people might lose momentum," said Amr Hamzawy, research director at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut and another member of the group. "The President has only heeded part of those demands."

Besides Mr. Sawiris and Mr. Hamzawy, the wise men include media mogul Ibrahim Moallem, respected columnist Amr Elshobaki, and former Egyptian foreign minister Amr Moussa, who now heads the Cairo-based Arab League.

Sunday's groundbreaking meeting achieved "big progress," said Mr. Sawiris, who added that he believes the regime is "serious about reforms."

It's worth noting that the only two concrete things to come of the preliminary meeting were an agreement to establish an independent judicial committee to propose constitutional changes, and an end to the country's state of emergency. Both were items in the wise men's proposal.

Mr. Sawiris is renowned for extracting profits from volatile telecom markets, such as North Korea and war-torn Iraq.

"We go where people don't dare to go," he told The Globe and Mail's Iain Marlow last August. "We're crazy, adventurous."

In Canada, Mr. Sawiris has invested in Wind Mobile and has butted heads with Canada's protectionist policies and its entrenched big-three providers.

"I have been offered by two of them to buy me out at a very significant profit," Mr. Sawiris said. "But that means I'm a broker, not an industrialist. It's against my saga, against my history … And this, I would consider it as a bribe."

The man's timing can be impeccable. Mr. Sawiris owned a leading mobile operator in Tunisia until Jan. 5, when he sold his interests to a joint venture of Qatar's QTel and the son-in-law of then-president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

A week later, Mr. Ben Ali and his family fled the country.

It seems clear that the Orascom oracle sees Egypt's current situation as he sees those others: an opportunity.

But many of the young protesters in Tahrir Square are unhappy with the intervention of the wise men.

They argue the protesters should have the last say in the outcome of their revolution, and they say they will settle for nothing less than the ouster of Mr. Mubarak. The protest leaders fear, said one, that if the Sawiris group's plan is accepted, 90 per cent of their support will leave Tahrir Square.

In effect, they argue, Mr. Sawiris and his cronies are splitting the opposition, playing to Mr. Mubarak's hand.

However, Mr. Sawiris insists the wise men's proposal "meets all the demands of the young people."

While he and the other wise men credit the youth with creating the opportunity for change, they argue they are not prepared to take things to the next level.

The problem with the young protesters, Mr. Sawiris said, is that "they are not unified … there is no leader to negotiate with." That's why Mr. Sawiris and his group have stepped forward.

They also have "no proposal for a transition period," he added, which is why his group's proposal of letting Mr. Mubarak finish out his term, albeit ceremonially, is better.

With a report from Iain Marlow in Toronto

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