Being extremely rich in Egypt is an occupational hazard nowadays, especially with investigators going after allegations of corruption and cronyism in the fallen regime of Hosni Mubarak. But Naguib Sawiris, 56, isn't sweating it, even if he is the second richest Egyptian in Forbes magazine's list of global billionaires. At an estimated worth of $2.5 billion, Sawiris is topped only by his father Onsi, who is worth $3.1 billion.
And, at a quick glance, the entire Sawiris clan might easily be pegged as cronies of the old regime. After all, Orascom, the family's commercial empire (which Naguib runs with his two younger brothers), is the largest private employer and the largest Egyptian company by market capitalization and, though started by Onsi under former President Anwar Sadat, Orascom really took off in the past few decades under Mubarak. Naguib is also reportedly a friend of Mubarak's son and heir apparent, Gamal, who was the driving force for economic reforms that included privatizations of state firms.
Naguib sits as executive chairman of Orascom Telecom Holding while his brother Nassef is CEO of Orascom Construction the source of their father's original wealth and his other Samih runs Orascom Hotels and Development, which has resorts in several places in the Middle East as well as in Switzerland. Naguib built up the corporation's positions in railways, information technology and telecommunications. The latter includes an international cell-phone operation that has branched out from Egypt into six other countries (including Algeria, Zimbabwe and North Korea), servicing close to 100 million subscribers.
Though questions still linger about how Orascom was awarded its cell-phone spectrum, Naguib Sawiris is adamant that he and his company took no shortcuts. "Clearly I like making money," he tells TIME. "But I like my money, and my success, to be attributed only to my hard work, my honesty, my reputation, my background, my education and my family. I don't like easy money, it doesn't taste right. How can you celebrate your success when you know you took a shortcut? It's just not my style."
Under Mubarak, observers say, it would have been hard for any company to have remained completely unsullied. But most analysts say Orascom would more likely have been subject to shakedowns in order to continue with its business, rather than trying to bribe its way into financial advantage. "The only ones who have done wrong should worry," Sawiris tells TIME in light of the ongoing corruption probes. "Someone like me definitely has no grounds to worry." Indeed, unlike other plutocrats associated with the old regime, none of Sawiris' assets have been frozen, and he hasn't been forbidden from leaving the country.
Sawiris has a reputation for personal integrity, being a strong nationalist with a liberal vision of Egypt's future. That was reflected in recent media investments, including the independent newspaper al-Masry al-Youm (which means "Egyptians Today"), which he launched in 2004, and the satellite TV network OTV, both aimed at Egyptian youth. The paper and the network carried extensive coverage of the protests that began on Jan. 25. He was widely regarded as an acceptable intermediary (as part of the so-called "wise men's committee") between the protesters and the Mubarak regime, represented by Vice President Omar Suleiman. "I was never someone that was attached to any party," says Sawiris. "You know, I've always been an independent person. I'd like to remain like that. If my country needs my help in any way, I provide it. If I had to voice my opinion, I voice it."
The openness may come in part because the Sawiris clan belongs to Egypt's Coptic Christian minority, which makes up 10% of the country's estimated 80 million people. Sawiris has spoken publicly of the personal importance of his religion: "I'm a very strong believer and this has been always the source of my strength, not the money," he told Charlie Rose in a 2008 interview. The Copts have been the victims of increasingly violent persecution over the past couple of years, including a horrific suicide bombing during the Christmas holiday at a prominent church in Alexandria, which claimed 21 lives.
Sawaris makes clear he never sought the protection of the regime. "I don't run behind authority," he tells TIME. "Clearly it was not a democratic regime." He was also not averse to ranking members of Orascom voicing their political opinions during the protests. Khaled Bichara, 39, the CEO of Orascom Telecom, tells TIME he started visiting Tahrir Square the day after Interior Ministry thugs were unleashed against demonstrators on Jan. 28. He had cut short a business trip to Italy and had informed Sawiris that he wanted to attend, in a personal capacity. There were no objections. In the process of bringing in medical supplies, Bichara and several friends were roughed up by thugs. The incident happened right in front of police who knew who Bichara was the boss of more than 20,000 employees because they were checking IDs. But the cops just shrugged and said this was what he had to expect because he opposed the Mubarak regime.
Still, he is clearly ambivalent about the post-Mubarak period. While he may have played a mediating role during Mubarak's waning days, he says that is now over. "Our role ended with the decision for the military to take over," he says. Things did not quite end up as he had envisioned. The "wise men" had wanted Mubarak to delegate enough power to Suleiman to keep most of the constitution and parliament in place so "we wouldn't have any unknown factor of a military situation taking over." That, he says, "would have been avoided." The junta could clearly benefit from consulting with business leaders but, Sawiris adds wearily, "You know, they need to see that for themselves. It's not for me to tell them that." Asked what he thinks of the current situation in Egypt, he says pointedly, "That's one question I won't answer."