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A billionaire trying to give Egyptians more freedom

Naguib Sawiris, the eldest son of Egyptian billionaire Onsi Sawiris, built Orascom Telecom, then sold the family's stake to Russian and emerging market telecom giant VimpelCom in April for $6.5 billion. He also delved into Egyptian politics, forming the Free Egyptians party in April to promote free markets and a secular platform.

Deborah Baic/THE GLOBE AND MAIL/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

In Canada, Naguib Sawiris is perhaps best known as the man financing upstart Canadian wireless provider Wind Mobile. In Egypt, however, he is known as the country's richest man and most prominent Christian.

During the revolution that ousted president Hosni Mubarak from office, the 57-year-old founder of Orascom Telecom Holding played a pivotal role, negotiating between the army and the revolutionaries in a volatile vacuum of power. He subsequently founded the Free Egyptians, a liberal, secular political party that – according to the polls – will lose to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt's parliamentary elections on Nov. 28.

Mr. Sawiris says he harbours no political ambition himself, but finds the prospect of an Islamic party governing Egypt frightening. On Thursday, he spoke with The Globe And Mail to explain why.

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You have very strong beliefs about the future of your country but you won't run for Parliament. Why is that?

I lead a very unorthodox lifestyle. I am not a serious guy when it comes to my private life. If I go into politics I would have to be a totally different person. I am providing financing and organizational capacity for others to run to protect my rights to have an unorthodox lifestyle. To go grab a Scotch, to look at beautiful women, to do what I want. If you want to go to the mosque, go to the mosque. If you want to go to the church, go to the church. If you want to go to the bar and have a drink, go to the bar and have a drink. I don't like any restrictions.

Regardless of politics, you have a huge public profile, a lot of Twitter followers. I have to ask about the cartoon you posted a few months ago that caused such controversy: Mickey Mouse with a beard and Minnie Mouse in a niqab . Why did you do that? Why did you apologize?

Because it was a very stupid thing to do. If I was a Muslim and I made that joke it might have passed, but as a Christian it could be interpreted as though you are mocking another religion. When you do something stupid you have to apologize. I am absolutely not anti-Islamic. I had no idea that I would be offending Islam.

All the polls indicate The Muslim Brotherhood will win these elections. How will the secular movement move forward?

The competition is not really fair. These liberal parties are six months old. The Muslim Brotherhood, they've been there for years. They own infrastructure and they are being funded by Qatar by a hundred million dollars that came to them during the revolution. The fight is not fair. Our party and the liberals will be in the next Parliament too. They will not be in a majority but they will be present. They will be the opposition. They will fight against a religious state. If we have to go to the streets, we will.

What is your assessment of post-revolutionary Egypt?

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I feel like we did this revolution and the outcome is not what we expected. Unless something happens to put us back on the right track, we will all be sorry. The whole West from Mr. Obama to Mr. Cameron to Mr. Sarkozy are just watching this so-called Arab Spring as bystanders. There is chaos now. We have no security. There are strikes every day. People take the law in their hand. The hotels are empty. The stock exchange has crashed. Our reserves are depleting and you have the threat of this whole area turning into another Iran. If you watch a small problem, it becomes a massive problem. If you ask me what the West should have done, they should have come to us and helped us out.

On my recent trip to Egypt I found a lot of anti-Western sentiment. People said they didn't want outside help, especially from the West, because they saw it as interference.

The people you spoke with are the youth who went to Tahrir Square. The regime collapsed and then they went home and left the square for the Islamists to hijack it. These guys they went and played the guitar in Tahrir Square and when the party was over they went home. Now the country is collapsing. We ask them to join a political movement. They say they are not into politics. They are very good at breaking down the kitchen but when we try to build, they don't want to join. I am really frustrated they are not doing anything for any secular party. What frustrates me most is when one of them comes to me and says 'Hey, how's your party doing?' As if it's a show.

Tunisia's Ennahda Party says it won't create a radical Islamic state. The Brotherhood says they have moderated. Why don't you believe them?

They go back on their word. They say stuff to win. They will say anything now to get the votes but they don't believe women and Christians should take their place in the country. And therefore heretics like me alienate them. My family is half of the Cairo stock exchange. We are the largest employer, largest taxpayer. They believe that this should have never happened to begin with.

Is there anything that gives you hope?

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The Brotherhood controls the majority of the active voters. We have on our side the majority of the passive voters. We are doing a campaign to get out the vote. This is a historical moment in the country. If all those people get off their couches then the results might be different. What really killed me was the result in Tunisia. Tunisia is a very liberal country. The women there are like stronger than 10 men. You would think these Islamists would have no chance but they won 45 per cent of the vote. I said if this happens in Tunisia, then what is going to happen in Egypt?

Egypt's economy is in turmoil. How can it turn around?

With a very strong technocratic government that can attract investment and assure the outside world that Egypt is safe. This requires elections to be over, a strong government and a willingness to fix the mistakes of the past 12 months – cancelling privatization procedures, jailing of businessmen and ministers.

How are you regarded these days in Egypt?

I am the most popular guy in the streets of Egypt because common people respect the fact that a billionaire like me could have been sitting on his boat in San Tropez with a big cigar, enjoying his life. After the revolution most businessmen left Egypt. Against the advice of everybody, I went back. Everybody was shocked. I am not a quitter. That's my disease. I have never understood how anybody could desert their own country.

– This interview has been edited and condensed

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About the Author

Sonia Verma writes about foreign affairs for The Globe and Mail. Based in Toronto, she has recently covered economic change in Latin America, revolution in Egypt, and elections in Haiti. Before joining The Globe in 2009, she was based in the Middle East, reporting from across the region for The Times of London and New York Newsday. More

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