Egypt telecom boss is confident of change


As the turmoil in Egypt continues there have been reports that many business leaders have fled the country. But Naguib Sawaris, the billionaire chairman of the telecom and construction giant Orascom is staying put. He talks to World Business News' Russell Padmore about how he's cautiously optimistic about the situation, as long as there's an orderly transition to democracy.

First broadcast on World Business News 31 January, 2011. The full transcript is below:

Naguib Sawiris: We need to give a break to this new government before to provide the people with a clear map to democracy. They need to confirm that to the people. Because I mean what people don't understand today, and I don't know if everybody knows it, the kids will go to the street. If we don't get what we want, we will go to the street again and again and again until we get what we want.

So, the 25th January demonstration in Egypt has changed the history of Egypt. Politicians now understand that unless they provide the people of Egypt with the real democratic needs they have, with the real right to live and work and get a decent job, they will not be allowed to stay. So, if this interim government will not provide us with what we want, the kids will go back to the streets and we will revolt and we will turn them around.

So what we are saying is, we want to avoid a chaos. There is also another danger that some of the fundamentalists, extremist forces in the country, the religious extremists, will try to hijack this revolution to their own merit. So what we are worried about, the business community, the labourers, the young people of Egypt who went to the streets, what we are worried about that that in the midst of this turmoil, someone will hijack this revolution and try to impose religious Iranian-type regime on the Egyptians. That is my biggest worry.

Russell Padmore: A lot of the demonstrators have been very unhappy about how some of the country's leading business people are too close to the government. We get reports of many business people fleeing the country, taking their money with them. Now, how do you react to the fear of people that maybe, even people like yourself, a leading business person has been too close to the government?

Naguib Sawiris: No, I'm sorry, I think you have got your information wrong. I have not been close to the government and I have not been far from the government. I am an Egyptian. My loyalty is only to Egypt and to no governments. My loyalty is only to the people of Egypt. Only the rats leave ships when they sink.

Russell Padmore: You must know and recognize that Egypt has been riven by corruption in recent years. That's been the problem of many businesses, just trying to carry out normal economic activity has been a real challenge. The protesters in the streets aren't happy because they believe the government and some business people have been corrupt.

Naguib Sawiris: Okay. With all respect to this, I am a very diverse businessman in the country. I have been working around the continent here in this Middle East. With all respect, Egypt is the least corrupt country in the Middle East. I am telling you this based on my own experience. The corruptions people are referring to is the small employees in the bureaucracy that are making their life difficult when they try to go for jobs or they try to get their licenses, permits. There is a corruption on the lower, but on the higher side, it is not true. It is correct that some businessmen have made their fortunes being aligned with the government, but they are a few and they are the ones who will flee or have already fled.

Russell Padmore: Do you feel a certain responsibility as a leading entrepreneur in the country that somehow you have to guide the economy, indeed guide the policymakers in the government. You have a great responsibility, don't you?

Naguib Sawiris: I do but, I mean, it's up to the government to call for our opinion and the problem with the government we have had till now, all the governments we have had till now, they ignored us or our opinions as they have ignored their own people. This is the problem. They have never listened to us. They always think they know better. Even to this moment, we are all waiting for a government to be formed, but it's taking its time.

Russell Padmore: There is a great fear among foreign investors that Egypt is going to collapse into chaos and yet many people within the country are saying the opposite. The protests have been fairly responsible. Do you think the future in perhaps the short and medium term is going to be a bit more positive than the dark picture being painted by some?

Naguib Sawiris: Look, there is no better guarantee for investments than real democracy. Egypt is a great place to invest, will remain to be a great place to invest. If democracy is established, and this is what the young people of Egypt are demanding right now, it will be even a better place to invest. Because there is then insurance of law and order, there is a rule of law, which has been really not available in the past. But personally, I am very optimistic and I am very happy on what happened till now.

Russell Padmore: Now, we have seen many businesses almost grinding to a halt. There have been restrictions on the internet for example. Some of the mobile telecom circuits were turned off for a while. You run a really big mobile telephone company. How is your business affected?

Naguib Sawiris: This is unfortunate and I think it is stupid, and I think it is in the best interest of the country right now to restore the internet and the SMS service. The fact the government is still worried about mass demonstrations, they will not be able to prevent them anyhow. The only way for this government to sustain stability is to sit down with the opposition voices and hear them out and promise reforms and real democracy. That is the only way out.

Russell Padmore: It is estimated more than one in four people, a quarter of the workforce don't have a job. You run, for example, a building construction company. Can you see a time when things will turn around and many of those young people protesting will actually have the promise of a job? The responsibility is yours to create that employment, isn't it?

Naguib Sawiris: Yes, but we were not created by defaming the business community of Egypt, by attacking the entrepreneurs, by attacking the fair economic model. That is the problem today. It is going to be a big challenge. The only way out of this is to have a democratic, liberal, pro-investment, pro-liberal economy government. That's what we need to fight for and it is not clear we will get that or not.

Russell Padmore: Do you think President Hosni Mubarak will still be in that post six months from now?

Naguib Sawiris: If you can bear me the answer, I will appreciate that.

Russell Padmore: That's absolutely fine.

Naguib Sawiris: I mean I want to say something. I am for change, but I must salute the fact that he did not run away and leave the country in turmoil.

Russell Padmore: There is turmoil at the moment. A lot of everyday business activity has ground to a halt. How do you see your own business is going to be affected because of these events?

Naguib Sawiris: Well, they are already affecting. We are losing revenue because of course there is no Internet; there is no SMS. Our shops have been attacked and ransacked. Our main court or buildings have been attacked. We need to restore confidence in our country and in our stock exchange. What more do you want. I mean it is going to be an uphill fight, but what is positive is that democracy is the best insurance of investment.

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