By Lubna Hamdan
Egyptian billionaire says the Arab world is 'plagued' by Islamic fundamentalists with close minded mentalities
One of Egypt’s richest men Naguib Sawiris has argued against the hijab – the veil some Muslim women use to cover their hair in the presence of men who are outside their immediate family.
Speaking to Arabian Business, the executive chairman and CEO of investment conglomerate Orascom Investment Holding (OIH) said: “Women are beautiful. If God didn’t want them to be beautiful, he would not have created them like that. If God would have wanted them to be veiled, he would have created them with a veil. God is beautiful and loves beauty. God knows what he is doing. Who are we to argue?”
Sawiris is part of Egypt’s Christian minority but is a champion of secularism, having co-founded the liberal political party the Free Egyptians Party. He has often spoken against the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the country, highlighting the rising number of women wearing niqab, a face-covering veil.
The businessman is credited with changing the face of telecoms across the MENA region through Orascom Telecoms, and is now supporting his brother Samih’s annual El Gouna Film Festival in the Red Sea resort town built in the 1990s through Orascom Development Holding.
While the festival attracted over 200 movies stars and filmmakers including Hollywood stars Sylvestor Stallone, Patrick Dempsey and Owen Wilson, and led to a surge in tourism to the resort town, it was also met with criticism from hardliners and religious conservatives.
“We have problems with [The Censorship Authority]. They delay many movies, we have problems with religion, people are still thinking in a very close-minded [way],” he said.
Last year, the Cairo International Film Festival saw Egyptian actress Rania Youssef forced to apologise for a black see-through gown she wore to the red carpet after three lawyers filed a lawsuit against her for “inciting debauchery”.
Sawiris said the Arab world is “plagued” by Islamic fundamentalists, and that the festival does not cater to them, adding that actresses attending El Gouna Film Festival will not be confined to a dress code.
“Unfortunately in Egypt, there is a tendency to look at women and say, ‘They are dressed half-naked’. I am not from that school [of thought]… The Arab world is plagued by these symptoms… When [Arabs] travel abroad and women are going [around] freely, it’s okay, but when it’s in our society, it becomes [unacceptable].
“I can’t understand the minds of people who reduce everything to a sexual angle, which is sick. This doesn’t exist anywhere in the world except in our society. When I see a woman, I don’t necessarily think of her in that [sexual] way. We are not catering to these kind of people and we really don’t care about [them]… We will continue to do what we do. We will still tell artists to wear what they like… Every year we push the barrier one step further. We’re very difficult to stop - in all modesty,” he said.
Egypt is home to the largest Christian community in the Middle East, making up around 10 percent of the population, but Christians in the country faced unprecedented persecution in recent years, with 128 killed and more than 200 driven out of their home due to their religion, according to a report by Open Doors. The research said this was partly due to “the overspill of Islamic terrorists driven out of Iraq and Syria”.
While a series of film festivals have been scrapped across the Middle East, with Dubai having “moved on” from the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF), according to Dubai Film and TV Commission CEO Jamal Al Sharif, and the postponed Gulf Film Festival having never returned - Sawiris said the Arab world needs “a liberator” like cinema.
“It’s a shame that [DIFF] was [discontinued] because it was a big success when it started and we really need this in our area because cinema is a liberator. When you go to the cinema and you watch a good movie, after the movie, you go out with a lot of sensation, emotions, thoughts about life,” he said.