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Second wind for Egyptian telco tycoon Sawiris

Orascom Telecom chairman Naguib Sawiris speaks during a conference in Beirut June 2, 2010. Picture taken June 2, 2010. REUTERS/Cynthia Karam
Orascom Telecom chairman Naguib Sawiris speaks during a conference in Beirut June 2, 2010. Picture taken June 2, 2010. REUTERS/Cynthia Karam

By Edmund Blair and Leila Abboud

(Reuters) - 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 Egypt's president.

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 books.

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 written.

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 be dressed."

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."

BROKEN DREAM

With his two brothers, who have billion-dollar businesses in fertilizer, 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 nationalized 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.

SECOND WIND

Some who know him say he wants to rebuild his telecom empire.

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."

(Additional reporting by Mirna Sleiman, Georgina Prodhan and Danilo Masoni; Editing by Will Waterman)

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