Political Islam's status as a legitimate fixture in Egyptian society does not sit well with many in the country. Stephen Glain met with prominent businessman, Naguib Sawiris, and discovered that a certain antipathy towards religious governance may hinder Egypt's nascent plurality.
Yesterday I paid a courtesy call on Naguib Sawiris, the forlorn face of non-Islamist Egypt.
Naguib is one of three brothers, the sons of a successful Coptic businessman, though he staked out a fortune of his own by taking bets in the telecommunications industry that no one else could stomach. On a table in his office antechamber is a framed photograph of him strolling along a marble corridor with Kim Jong Il, the late dictator of North Korea, where his company installed a cell phone network.
The Sawiris clan and its conglomerate enterprises, the Orascom group, are lynchpins of Egyptian society, particularly now amid chronic joblessness and flat growth after the ouster last year of dictator Hosni Mubarak. When Naguib spoke out early and aggressively against the regime as the anti-Mubarak revolt erupted last January, he was putting both himself and Orascom on the line. Vindicated, he launched a political party that stands for a liberal, secular order.
If informal polls are anything to go by, the man Egyptians elect in this month’s presidential election is liable to be neither liberal nor secular. Hence it was a deflated if combative Sawiris that regarded me from behind his cluttered desk in the Orascom office building.
“If the Islamists win it’s the end of the civil state,” he said, referring to Mohammed Morsi, the candidate fielded by the Muslim Brotherhood, or Ikhwan, and Abdel Moneim Abu Fotouh, the ex-Brotherhood leader who split from the group to mount an independent campaign. “I’ve never been so pessimistic.”
The election, said Sawiris, was not about capitalism or socialism but human rights. An Islamist president, marching in lockstep with the country’s Islamist-dominated parliament and its Islamist-led syndicates, would impose a new constitution that would steamroller the revolution’s humanist ideals. “If there is a religious reign,” he said, “it will be about my relationship with God, what I wear, what I can drink, what art I can buy, and what movies I can watch.” Pointedly, Sawiris said the Western powers should not support an Islamist government in Egypt until it proved its commitment to ecumenical democracy. He admonished Western journalists, (and by implication this one), who have characterized Ikhwan leaders as practical men who would govern from the center so as not to antagonize the moderate Egyptian middle.
I can sympathize with Naguib, who has far more at stake in this election than I do. But to pre-emptively isolate a freely elected government for its religious identity would likely arouse its most illiberal instincts. And truth be told, since the Ikhwan has assured the US government of its respect for Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel and its contracts with foreign investors, it is more or less free to harass women, Christians and dissidents with nary a peep from Washington.
For Naguib, and for those who have invested their hopes in people like him, the inconvenient truth of political Islam is its legitimacy as a fixture of the very civic society they fear will crumble under its authority. When Sawiris says, as he did in our conversation yesterday, that he will resist the Islamist tide “until his last breath,” he is placing himself in opposition to a plurality, if not a majority, of his fellow Egyptians. That is a losing gamble, even for someone who built an empire beating the odds.