But since the regime-toppling revolution here, Ezz, 52, has been paraded through the streets like a common criminal, taunted by a mob and tossed into jail on charges of graft. (For good measure, pro-democracy demonstrators also looted and torched the headquarters of Ezz Steel.)
Ezz, in a recent public letter from jail, says he did nothing illegal. But as Egypt purges elements of its old order and gropes to structure a new one, he has emerged as perhaps the most hated symbol of a system that rewarded the few and oppressed the many. Fairly or not, Ezz — the oligarch who cornered the market on steel production in the Arab world — represents for millions of Egyptians a pervasive crony capitalism that, before the revolution, was simply a fact of life.
Several colleagues would talk about Ezz only on the condition of anonymity, citing concerns about their safety. In a series of interviews, Abla Ezz, a well-coiffed 48-year-old, sometimes dropped her voice to a paranoid whisper: “Everyone in the country is afraid to say they work for Ezz Steel.” She said it is best to avoid showy jewelry and to drive “a very humble car, because you can’t be seen as a rich girl.”
But she still resides at a Four Seasons hotel in the spacious 24th-floor apartment she kept with her husband and their 14-year-old son. Fresh-cut flowers abound, and the view of the Nile is unsurpassed. Surveying the city one recent afternoon, she offered this interpretation of the prevailing public mood: “Anyone who is rich in this country is corrupt, is evil, and he should be behind bars.”
Her assessment may not be far off the mark. Since February, prosecutors have aggressively pursued scores of businessmen with ties to the former regime, freezing their assets, banning them from travel and filing corruption charges related to sweetheart deals between self-enriching businessmen and government officials. Now some in the business community say such swift revolutionary justice could put the nation’s economy at risk, because entrepreneurs such as Ezz, no matter their methods of doing business, provided jobs and built solid companies. The rising industrialists, telecom magnates and financiers of the past decade fired the economic engines of growth, privatization and foreign investment.
“There is no reasonable country that puts their businessmen in prison and loses their economy. We need to build; we don’t want to destroy,” said Mohamed Hamouda, a well-known Cairo lawyer who says he declined to take Ezz’s case, certain the billionaire could never get a fair trial. “Who will come to Egypt to invest if he will find the businessmen in the prison?”