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Naguib Sawiris trends on social media as critics accuse him of hypocrisy

Egyptian businessman Naguib Sawiris takes to the red carpet at the closing ceremony of the 2nd El Gouna Film Festival on 28 September 2018 in Hurghada, Egypt [Jonathan Rashad/Getty Images]
Egyptian businessman Naguib Sawiris takes to the red carpet at the closing ceremony of the 2nd El Gouna Film Festival in Hurghada, Egypt on 28 September 2018 [Jonathan Rashad/Getty Images]

Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris is trending again on social media after warning that the government's monopoly over the economy is creating an unfair playing field in Egypt.

"Companies that are government-owned or with the military don't pay taxes or customs," he told AFP from his luxury hotel in the Red Sea resort of El-Gouna.

"We of course can't do that, so the competition from the beginning is unfair. The state has to be a regulator, not an owner."

Sawiris is often outspoken politically. He opposed the Muslim Brotherhood rule in 2013 and founded a television programme in 2007, ONTV, and a political party, which also opposed the group.

It is not the first time the businessman has complained that the army is negatively impacting business: in 2020 he said that the army's economic activities have impacted entrepreneurs negatively and that they should focus on security and terrorism.

The military's economy has been shrouded in secrecy for decades, and its defence budget is considered a state secret.

The lack of oversight has been protected by legislation, including a 2018 "contracting law" which exempts the military and their companies from auditing.

READ: Egypt's president increases penalty for divulging state secrets

Under the current President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, the army's hold over the economy has expanded in all directions. For example, in August, the Egyptian military-owned Silo Egypt for Food Industries was awarded a contract under which they would supply all meals to state-run schools across the country.

Most recently, the spotlight has been on Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi's vanity project, the new administrative capital, from which the army looks set to reap huge profits.

The Administrative Capital for Urban Development (ACUD), which the military has a majority stake in, oversees selling the housing units on offer there.

Under the trending Arabic hashtag, "Sawiris' coming of age", Egyptian MP Mostafa Bakry points out that Sawiris himself has contracts with the army:

The army has assigned projects to Orascom Construction, of which Sawiris is chairman and CEO. It is the main contractor for the new capital where it will build government buildings, hotels, housing and a new cultural centre.

Last year Sawiris sparked outrage when he said that Egyptians should sleep on the floor of factories and get back to work amid the global pandemic and said that he would commit suicide if the curfew put in to tackle the deadly disease continued.

READ: Egypt billionaire: State, army companies make business 'unfair'

Yesterday, he was criticised again for being an elitist and not at all concerned with the common citizen.

"Of course, Sawiris is not affected by fear for the country, but his most important interests first and foremost."

Over the summer, workers for the National Iron and Steel Company, owned by Sawiris, signed a pledge not to request their wages or take part in a strike over pay in return for keeping their jobs.

The expansion of the army's economic role across Egypt has been at the expense of the private sector and Sawiris' latest comments are part of an ongoing crisis between businessmen and the government.

In December, prominent dairy producer Safwan Thabet of Juhayna Food Industries, and his son, were arrested and accused of financing a terror organisation.

At the time Amnesty International said that they were being held in conditions that amount to torture because they refused to cede their assets to the state.

Just days after Thabet's arrest, prominent Egyptian businessman Syed Sowerky, who owned the store chain Al-Tawid wel Noor, was put into pretrial detention pending an investigation into his alleged support for the banned Muslim Brotherhood.

Two months before this, business tycoon Salah Diab, who owns La Poire sweets factories, was arrested pending investigation into multiple corruption charges.

At the time, critics accused the government of politically motivated arrests and a drive to nationalise companies across Egypt.

There has been speculation over why Sawiris is able to make such bold comments in a climate of zero freedom of expression.

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