March 15, 2015 / 2:23 PM / 3 years ago

Egypt's Sawiris to diversify Orascom, invest $500 million in Egypt

Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris, chairman of Orascom TMT Holding, speaks during the Egypt Economic Development Conference (EEDC) in Sharm el-Sheikh, in the South Sinai governorate, south of Cairo, March 14, 2015. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

SHARM EL SHEIKH, Egypt (Reuters) - Top Egyptian businessman Naguib Sawiris said he was ready to invest $500 million in Egypt and was diversifying his telecoms business into infrastructure, energy and transportation, sectors which need major funds in the country.

Sawiris, a billionaire from a powerful Coptic Christian family, said the investment conference in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh had been a success but that the government would need to make efforts to follow up with investors.

“We all know the minute the decisions go down to our famous and most regarded bureaucrats you see one sign only: stop. They need to have a pusher, and the minister of investment is a pusher,” said Sawiris, 60, chairman and chief executive of Orascom Telecom, Media and Technology (OTMT.CA).

He said the government should form a committee to firmly thrust the investment agenda forward and help revive Egypt’s economy, laid low by four years of political turmoil triggered by the 2011 revolt which toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

“My advice... is the prime minister should initiate a small office headed by the investment minister with some drivers who continue the dialogue with the investors who committed to the projects in this conference,” said Sawiris.

Egypt clinched investments worth billions of dollars from top global companies such as General Electric (GE.N), BP (BP.L) and Eni (ENI.MI) at the conference, which ends on Sunday.

Gulf Arab allies also pledged $12.5 billion.

Sawiris said Orascom Telecom would diversify into new sectors including infrastructure, logistics and energy projects alongside its core business.

“I am going to be extremely aggressive here in my investments. We have firepower right now of 500 million dollars. Today we signed $100 million out of this 500,” Sawiris told Reuters in an interview at the investment conference.

“We are the first and the only Egyptian company till now to sign the solar power energy 50 megawatts today.”

Sawiris said he also saw opportunities in Tunisia.

“We are willing to duplicate our investments in Egypt in Tunisia, because it’s stable, because the political Islamists are more wise than ours here,” he said.

CRITICIZES ISLAMISTS, QUESTIONS ARMY ROLE IN ECONOMY

Sawiris was a vocal opponent of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement removed from power by then-army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who went on to become president.

Sawiris said he opposed reconciliation with the Brotherhood and, like the government, accuses it of carrying out bombings that have killed hundreds of people since the army toppled Islamist President Mohamed Mursi following mass protests in mid-2013.

He called on them to unilaterally renounce violence.

“Then they will find liberal people like us defending their rights, their rights of existence, their rights of being a political party,” he said.

But Sawiris said he could not forgive acts of violence.

“I remember Jesus when he was on the cross and he said, ‘please forgive them’. Ok, but he’s Jesus. I cannot do that,” said Sawiris.

He became emotional when recalling watching a video showing of Islamic State militants beheading 21 fellow Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya last month.

“You want to tell me I should give the other cheek to these people? I’ll go out and find them. That’s my dream: to go out and find these people,” he said.

“I come from the south. In the south, if you kill one of my family, I kill ten of your family... It’s based on revenge.”

Sawiris said Egyptians had set aside concerns over human rights, which he described as “not ideal”, to focus on the economy, but stressed Egyptians should not abandon hopes generated by the 2011 uprising.

“We will concede to the will of the people that we need to build the country first, but once the country stands on its feet, we will not accept less than a true, total, liberal, democratic (society),” said Sawiris, founder of the liberal Free Egyptians Party.

Turning to one of the most sensitive issues in Egypt, Sawiris was adamant that the military should not have a role in the economy.

The armed forces said to control up to 40 percent of the economy. Sisi told Reuters last year it was more like 2 percent.

“It distracts the main focus because we are under a lot of threats. They will not like what I say now but that’s my opinion,” said Sawiris.

“An army should focus one and only task and that is defending Egypt. Where else in the world do other armies have businesses?”

Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky

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