Christian Egyptian tycoon plans new TV stations against radicals

CAIRO - Egyptian billionaire and telecoms tycoon Naguib Sawiris plans to launch new television channels to counter what he describes as increasing social and religious conservatism in the Arab Muslim country.

Sawiris, a Coptic Christian with a $10 billion fortune according to Forbes magazine, said he would launch a movie channel early in 2008 followed by an all-news station. He already owns OTV, a 24-hour entertainment channel.

Speaking at a dinner for journalists late on Monday, Sawiris said he was disturbed by the rising number of women wearing the Islamic headscarf.

"I am not against the headscarf because then I would be against personal freedoms," he said. "But when I walk in the street now I feel like I am in Iran... I feel like a stranger."

Women in the Islamic Republic of Iran are obliged by law to cover their hair and wear long, loose-fitting clothes to disguise their figures.

Egypt, a country dominated by Sunni Muslims, has seen a rise in religious conservatism since the 1990s. The majority of women wear headscarves in public.

Some sociologists attribute this to the influence of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, where millions of Egyptians have worked and lived since the 1970s.

Sawiris, who says he opposes radical Muslims and Christians alike, said his OTV channel has sought to counter the "high dosage" of religious and conservative programming on other channels by offering light shows targeting young people, along with uncensored Arab and foreign movies.


BEYOND THE LIMITS


"If a movie is beyond the limits of the customs and traditions it won't be broadcast," he said. "But if a movie is shown, it will not be censored."

Most television channels in Egypt and the Arab world cut sexual scenes in movies and restrict offensive language.

Sawiris's comments are likely to anger Islamists in Egypt, including the Muslim Brotherhood opposition group, which pushed unsuccessfully last year to oust Culture Minister Farouk Hosni for saying wearing the headscarf was "a step backwards".

The Egyptian billionaire, who owns a stake in Egypt's popular daily newspaper Al Masry Al Youm, launched a scathing attack on the Brotherhood, which insists that non-Muslims and women are ineligible to run for the country's presidency.

"To hell with them," he said. "Not a single Christian is waiting for their permission. God is just. God does not discriminate between people."

Sawiris, chairman of Orascom Telecom, the fourth largest Arab mobile phone operator by market value, is not known to have any political ambitions and has rarely expressed his political opinions in public.

Independent media have challenged the dominance of state-run Egyptian press and television, which for decades has dictated what the public could read, watch or listen to. Privately-owned newspapers have pushed the boundaries in political reporting, attacking President Hosni Mubarak and his family. Private television, however, does not enjoy the same liberties.

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