I recently returned from London (more from there later), but unfortunately missed an event at SOAS last night at which Naguib Sawiris, the founder of the Free Egyptians party, spoke. Arabist reader Dalia Malek was there, though. For background, Sawiris is the wealthiest man in Egypt, with his family playing major roles in the telecom, construction, cement and tourism industries. He also owns OnTV, which is post-revolution Egypt has become a must-watch channel for its political talk shows and interviews of political and military figures. Sawiris has moved fast, using his wealth and influence to make the Free Egyptians the first new liberal, secular party to get going.
Naguib Sawiris and the Free Egyptians Party in London
by Dalia Malek
Last night, Naguib Sawiris gave a talk on the aims of the Free Egyptians Party at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. Sharing the panel with Essam Samad from the Egyptian Association in Europe, they discussed the party’s strategies before a large and animated audience.
Sawiris engaged the audience with friendly, casual banter, making a joke about female drivers while driving a more serious point about upholding the rights of women. He spoke about education and poverty, suggesting that Egypt look toward European countries like Germany as a model.
He also derided attempts at isolating Egyptians with dual citizenship or non-Egyptian spouses from political participation.
Sawiris stated that the Free Egyptians Party does not intend to counterbalance the Muslim Brotherhood, and that his disagreement with them is strictly within the context of democratic debate. He indicated that the parties only disagree on two fundamental points: the rights of women and the rights of Copts.
The idea of religion was raised repeatedly throughout the evening, though Sawiris noted that the party does not seek to be based on religious affiliation.
Interestingly, though he assured the audience that the Free Egyptians Party does not seek to amend the contentious Article 2 of the Constitution, he also later mentioned the need to re-write the entire Constitution rather than merely make amendments to it.
While members of the audience occasionally chimed in during the panel’s discussion, when the floor was formally opened for questions, the debate became more heated.
Some delivered diatribes about the history and oppression of Copts in Egypt, while others spoke about the repression of the voice of the Muslim Brotherhood during the Mubarak regime. This latter statement introduced a question about where Sawiris and the members of his party were before Mubarak stood down, but was overtaken by the audience’s uproar.
While this gave rise to remarks about how Sawiris might have benefited from the Mubarak regime, arguments mainly broke out about between audience members themselves.
Some shouted criticisms about the role of religion and drew members of Sawiris’ security, while many clamored for the chance to be heard before the panel. Several said that they saw a bias in how questions were taken, where older people were being chosen to speak over younger people, and men over women. Still others overpowered the noise of disagreement by chanting unity slogans and displaying the Egyptian flag in a manner reminiscent of the days of the revolution.
Some made statements of self-criticism, indicating that Egyptians need to change themselves before they try to change their country and other Egyptians. There were comments about how supposedly educated Egyptians can hardly sit in a room together and engage in respectful democratic discourse.
Naguib Sawiris himself, as well as the rest of the panel, remained calm during the predominantly verbal outbursts. Sawiris continued to emphasize that religion must not divide Egyptians, and that he prefers to be associated with his Egyptian identity rather than his Coptic identity.
He concluded that since Egyptian youth initiated the revolution, he has witnessed attempts at its hijacking. He underlined that all Egyptians must not allow what the youth started in Egypt to go to waste.