* Made a name with telcos in emerging markets
* Past Italian mobile investment Wind was big turnaround
* Plans return with Telecom Italia investment
* Christian billionaire, a critic of Islamists
By Edmund Blair and Leila Abboud
Nov 27 Egyptian tycoon Naguib Sawiris is used to
ruffling feathers and making headlines.
He was up to both on Tuesday, provoking shareholders at
Telecom Italia with proposals to make himself a
significant shareholder at half the price they might want, while
the political party he co-founded prepared for protests against
The 58-year old entrepreneur, who built an emerging markets
telecoms empire that once stretched from North Korea to Algeria,
is plotting a surprise return to the European telecom scene by
buying a stake in Telecom Italia via a 3 billion euro ($3.9
billion) capital increase.
On Tuesday, Telecom Italia's core shareholders, which
include Spain's Telefonica and three Italian financial
institutions, learned that he is aiming for a deal around the
market price - currently 0.68 euros a share - a long way short
of the 1.50 euros at which they value the shares on their own
He also took a potshot at Telefonica, which competes with
Telecom Italia in Brazil and Argentina, for "holding Telecom
Italia as a hostage" to stop it growing in Latin America.
That characteristic bluntness has often landed him in court,
battling business partners, governments and Islamists in Egypt
since the country's revolution.
The Free Egyptian Party, which he helped set up, said it
would take part in protests planned for Tuesday against
President Mohamed Mursi's attempt to place his powers above the
reach of judicial review until a new constitution is
Though a devout Christian believer - styling himself a
"businessman who has a strong relation with God" - he says he is
engaged in "a struggle for Egypt to stay as a non-religious
state - where state, religion and church are separated".
"I am quite fanatic about my Scotch in the evening," Sawiris
told Reuters last year. "I don't like anybody telling me that I
can't drink. I don't like anyone telling me how my wife should
In June 2011 he tweeted a cartoon of Mickey Mouse with a
long beard and Minnie Mouse veiled in black to his million
followers on Twitter.
That prompted a boycott of his joint venture Egyptian mobile
firm Mobinil, spawned a Facebook page to denounce him and a
court case, ultimately thrown out, for contempt of religion.
It didn't deter him.
"I'm a guy that if you shoot at, he goes forward, he doesn't
retreat. The more you shoot at me, the more I go forward."
With his two brothers, who have billion-dollar businesses in
fertiliser, construction and real estate, the Sawiris family is
one of Egypt's biggest employers. They built on their father
Onsi's Orascom enterprise, at one time nationalised by President
Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1960s.
Onsi Sawiris sent his three sons to a German school in
Cairo, a move Naguib says framed his work ethic and prompted him
to send his four children to the same school. He has a prominent
picture of his father on his office wall.
Sawiris dreamed of turning Orascom Telecom into
one of the world's biggest mobile firms, and believes the
Algerian government destroyed that dream.
What had been a big gamble to go into Algeria in 2002
appeared to have paid off as local unit Djezzy soon became
Orascom's top revenue earner. But a row with the government,
which demanded back taxes that Orascom disputed, meant the cash
stream dried up. He sold Djezzy and other telecoms assets last
year to Russian-run Vimpelcom and has launched a $5
billion arbitration claim against Algeria.
Some who know him say he wants to rebuild his telecom
For all his emerging market savvy, his plan to invest in
Telecom Italia would bring him back to the developed market
where he enjoyed perhaps his biggest success, turning around
debt-laden Wind from 2005 to 2011 to create Italy's
third-biggest mobile operator.
"I wanted to come back to Europe because I got sick and
tired after the catastrophe that happened to me in Algeria," he
said. "When you invest in the West, you are sure at least that
law and order applies."
"The most value Naguib ever created in terms of financial
value was Italy," said Khaled Bichara, who once ran Orascom and
led Wind through the turnaround.
Sawiris is known for placing great trust in untested
proteges. Bichara was managing a $50 million operation in Egypt
before being sent to Italy to work at Wind. In two years, he was
running the 1.6 billion euro business.
"The jump was not scientific," said Bichara, who now runs
investment and management firm Accelero, set up by Sawiris and
others to manage his fortune, which Forbes puts at $3.1 billion.
It was Wind, more than his operations in the Middle East,
Africa, Asia or North America, that attracted Vimpelcom to buy
most of Orascom and other Sawiris assets.
The $6.5 billion deal was completed in 2011 as Egypt was
convulsed by the uprising that ousted longtime autocrat Hosni
Mubarak. Since then Sawiris has exited other telecom investments
and focused increasingly on politics in the new Egypt.
Though known for his bluntness, he also has a reputation for
magnanimous charm. France Telecom executive Henri de
Joux recalls negotiating with Sawiris during a three-year battle
for control of Mobinil.
After taking to the nightly news to slam the French as
modern-day Napoleons on the march in Egypt, Sawiris invited his
one-time foes to a swanky dinner in his penthouse apartment
overlooking the Nile to celebrate the settlement.
"He rolled out the red carpet for us after we fought each
other mercilessly for three years," de Joux said in an
interview. "My colleagues used to tell me I had Stockholm
syndrome, but at the end of it all, I still respected him."