Skip to main content

Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak attends a meeting with United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan at the presidential palace in Cairo February 8, 2011. Protesters called for a push on Tuesday to eject Mubarak from power after the government conceded little ground in talks with the opposition and tried to squeeze demonstrators out of central Cairo.

AMR ABDALLAH DALSH/Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters

By day, Abu-Bakr Makhlouf holds a high-powered job as head of investor relations for a real-estate company whose main shareholders are various arms of the Egyptian government and leaders of the ruling National Democratic Party.

The 33-year-old has an envious existence, earning a large six-figure salary and enjoying membership in Cairo's exclusive Gezira Club. His COO, whom he counts as a good friend, is a senior adviser to President Hosni Mubarak.

After pulling a 14-hour day, Mr. Makhlouf trades his suit and tie for jeans and a sweater. He trudges 10 minutes from his home in upscale Gemalek to join the crowds in Tahrir Square, where he spends much of the night.

Story continues below advertisement

The only outward sign of his dual identity is a white bandage he wears like a badge. It covers an eight-centimetre gash in his forehead suffered when someone lobbed a rock at his head during clashes last week.

Some of Egypt's elite – the "sub-billionaire" set – are playing an unusual role in this country's uprising, having prospered under the rule of a regime they are now attempting to rip down.

There are those, like Mr. Makhlouf, who are literally leading double lives, juggling day jobs that require them to attend board meetings with members of Mr. Mubarak's inner circle while playing revolutionary by night.

"I decided on purpose I didn't want to be involved in politics. I have never voted in my life," said Mr. Makhlouf, recalling his life before the uprising, and sipping an espresso at Cilantro, a café not far from his home.

The politicization of the Egyptian elite has been one of the most striking hallmarks of the protests that continue to grip this country.

"We all talked about our anger, at dinner parties, but the expectation was any uprising would be a revolution of the hungry, pitting the haves against the have-nots," said Ghada, who would not give her last name, a senior executive at a private equity firm that manages $8.6-billion in assets.

Instead, Egypt's wealthy have emerged on the front lines of the protests in Tahrir Square, which swelled yesterday and spread to other parts of the city in a clear rejection of the government's proposals of limited reform.

Story continues below advertisement

Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who was one of those behind the anonymous Facebook and YouTube campaign that helped galvanize the broader movement, has come to symbolize its unexpected face: young and privileged.

Mr. Ghonim's dramatic release from an Egyptian jail and subsequent emotional live television interview has emboldened those who identify with him – well-heeled Egyptians who have benefited from the economic growth and privatization created under some of Mr. Mubarak's reforms, but who have inwardly seethed at the state's corruption, violence and the limits it has imposed on their social freedoms.

Indeed, the economic disruption caused by the protests has sent many of their companies into financial freefall, but even at the Gezira Club, between sets of croquet and polo matches, you won't hear many complain.

Ahmed Mansour Khalifa, owner of a large pharmaceutical company in Cairo, smoked cigarettes in his white adidas sports jacket on one of the club's sunny verandas.

"I agree with the protesters. Of course, of course we need change," Dr. Khalifa said.

"Now it is affecting our business and our economy, but it's going to make a big difference in the future," he added.

Story continues below advertisement

His company's growth has been stymied by corruption, which has proved more damaging than the demonstrations, he maintains.

To register a new drug, for example, "even the smallest people in the government would take bribes."

"If I want to register a medicine, it takes ages. You must pay under the table. You must pay a lot of money," he said.

He, and his wife, Riham, inherited their membership in the club. First-time members pay an initiation fee of more than $50,000.

The sooner Mr. Mubarak leaves office, the better, the couple believes, echoing others.

"A lot of investors were waiting for the election to see what would happen. Everybody was afraid to invest because they didn't know whether Mr. Mubarak would go," Dr. Khalifa said.

His wife added: "You have to get rid of the virus before rebooting the computer."

While Dr. Khalifa is banking on a rebound, for others, the future is far less certain. A subset of Egypt's elite is embracing change, but there is another caste of uber-riche, and even nouveau riche, who are wary of the effects a regime change will have on their wealth and way of life.

There is an almost palpable interclass tension that has yet to play out in Egypt. In Mr. Makhlouf's office, it already is.

When management learned of Mr. Makhlouf's participation in the protests, they were silent. His COO's father is one of Mr. Mubarak's right-hand men.

"When they saw my stitches, they were shocked," he said. "I am running the risk of being fired because our board of directors is very much pro-Mubarak."

When he sent an e-mail offering to quit, his COO did not reply. "Let's see how it goes," he said.

On Jan. 25, it was his father, a retired doctor, who took to the streets while Mr. Makhlouf watched events unfold on television. As the protests escalated, he panicked, went looking for his father, and got roughed up by police.

"I never thought police could be so violent and senseless. That night I went home and told my wife, 'This is the first time I have seen this brutality. I am not scared of them,' " he recalled.

The next day, he headed to Tahrir Square and vows to return every day until Mr. Mubarak's regime is gone.

A year ago, fed up with the corruption endemic in the company where he worked, he struck out on his own, creating a start-up that sought to offer a "clean" alternative that he's been quietly nurturing on the side.

"We hoped this was the year we would break through. Now that's not going to happen. We're not at the point where we can weather this storm," he said.

Ironically, one of his biggest clients is the Egyptian government. He lost a half-million-dollar commission for a government-sponsored budget-housing project last week.

If his business sinks and he loses his job, he will explore other options in a country that he already knows has changed forever.

Maybe, Mr. Makhlouf says, he will go into politics.

Report an error Licensing Options
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

Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.