One Eye on the Exit
Sectarianism and business collide in post-revolutionary Egypt
Abdelnour’s dress and manner suited well the sublimity of the place. He wore a gray pinstripe suit with a royal-blue tie and matching pocket square. His pale blue shirt had French cuffs and was monogrammed below the pocket. He was formidably laconic and precise. We discussed the official neglect and malpractice that, over the decades, had cheated Egypt of its vast economic potential. Political instability—the Second Intifada was not yet two years old—was sidelining investment, but so too was the Egyptian government’s own failure to project a compelling message of change. Under such circumstances, my host told me, the most Egyptians could hope for was an inveterate “muddling through.”
Abdelnour was also a patriarch of Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority. As the interview concluded, I asked if he felt estranged from, or menaced by, the country’s Muslim majority. His gaze sharpened. “Absolutely not,” he said.
Last month, Abdelnour and I met for the second time, again in Giza. Much had changed since our last encounter. Vitrac had moved its headquarters elsewhere, and the villa had fallen into disuse. The recessed showcases were empty and the plaque outside had oxidized into a near-illegible brown. Abdelnour was active in the Al-Wafd Party, part of an alliance of political groups in opposition to Egypt’s Islamist-dominated government.
The economic crisis that followed the ousting of dictator Hosni Mubarak two years earlier was showing no signs of reversing itself. Shortages of everything from food to foreign currency threatened a renewed cycle of unrest. Most significantly—particularly as it related to Abdelnour and his co-religionists—sectarian violence, once muted, had become a scourge. Since the revolution, dozens of Copts had been killed in clashes with Muslim extremists. Less than two weeks earlier, militants had laid siege to the Coptic church’s national cathedral in Khosous, north of Cairo. An exodus of Coptic Christians was well underway, and along with it much of Egyptian enterprise.
Abdelnour insisted that making distinctions between Egypt’s Coptic and Muslim populations was “wrong and dangerous.” Since the Islamic conquest of the region in the seventh century, he said, Copts have made themselves intrinsic to the country’s political, economic and social identity. There is no Coptic quarter that segregates Egypt’s Christian world from its Muslim one, he told me, any more than the country’s erstwhile Jewish, Armenian, Greek and Italian communities huddle in their own separate enclaves.
Abdelnour also understood that, however socially cohesive was pre-Nasserite Egypt, only the Copts remain as a core minority group. Hanging over the country like a scythe is the specter that Egypt will lose its last non-Muslim demographic within a generation. That, according to Abdelnour, would have a crushing impact on the country, not only politically and socially, but also economically. “Diversity is wealth,” he told me. “National unity within diversity is strength. When you reduce diversity, you diminish your wealth.”
One would think that in Egypt, where the beginning of a post-war economic decline coincides roughly with the dispersal of its minority communities, such a rubric would be widely understood and appreciated. Sadly, this is not the case. The Muslim Brotherhood, which so expertly harnessed a spontaneous and independent revolution for its own parochial ends—perhaps with the help of the military—has in power revealed itself to be startlingly inept when it comes to handling the economy. In particular, it has persuaded some of the country’s most prolific entrepreneurs and businessmen to go the way of their Jewish, Armenian, Greek and Italian predecessors. They include Muslims as well as Copts, although anecdotally it is clear Christians are leaving in greater numbers relative to their population.
Leading the exodus are the heads of the Orascom group of companies. Nassef Sawiris, the chairman of Orascom Construction Industries (OCI), recently offered to pay the Egyptian government the equivalent of USD 1 billion over a period of five years to settle a tax dispute relating to OCI’s 2007 sale of its cement subsidiary to a French company. In return, Cairo lifted a travel ban on Sawiris and his father, Onsi, who have spent the last several months laying low in London. (On May 3, Nassef’s brother, Naguib, and their father returned to Cairo, although Nassef himself remained in Britain.) Many analysts dismiss the allegations as the kind of trumped-up charge tax agencies everywhere impose on relative innocents to help right the national accounts and settle political feuds. Some suggested the OCI affair was a back-door swipe at Naguib, whose genius as an investor is matched only by his proclivity for online cracks about orthodox Islam.
Even before the revolution erupted in January 2011—perhaps in anticipation of a volatile leadership succession involving the aging Mubarak—the Sawiris family began reducing their exposure to Egypt. Once its tax dispute is settled, OCI is expected to divest its shares from the Egyptian stock exchange and re-list them in Amsterdam. Naguib has sold his majority stake in the telecommunications giant he founded in the mid-1990s and is said to be in the US eyeing investment opportunities in that country’s energy sector. Having helped build a key sector of Egyptian industry—along with jobs for tens of thousands of Muslims, as well as Christians, in a country with double-digit unemployment—members of the Sawiris family are apparently heading for the exits.
Other Christian-owned companies are not so mobile. Beshay Steel is among Egypt’s most successful heavy-industrial companies. A major source of employment and hard currency—it exports 30% of its product, mostly steel reinforcing bars—the fourth-generation family-owned mill was poised to enter the more lucrative rolled-steel market until the revolution forced it to put those plans on hold. In 2008, the government approved its request to expand its operations, only to reverse itself four years later. According to procurement director Rafik Beshay, the youngest of four brothers who run Beshay Steel, the company was collateral damage in a sweeping investigation into investor and steel mogul Ahmed Ezz, a confidant of the Mubarak regime who last year was sentenced to seven years in jail for money laundering. “Our only relationship with him was as competitors,” said Beshay. “The ministry saw it differently.”
While neither the Beshay family nor their steel company—a strategic asset, after all—are going anywhere, it is increasingly hard to find a Copt who is not on intimate terms with fellow Christians who are planning to abandon Egypt or who have already left. Mina Gamal, spokesman for a Coptic human rights group, said two members of his immediate family have left and two more will soon follow. According to Gamal, many fear that the Muslim Brotherhood will extort their companies and drive them from Egypt with nothing left to take with them. “Copts feel interference in their work,” he said. “They are afraid the Islamists will strip them of their positions. These problems will be with us for some time.”