CAIRO — With a curt wave of her hand, the wife of one of Egypt’s richest men poses a question she already knows the answer to. “Who is sympathetic to the billionaire?” Abla Ezz asks. “No one.”
Just a couple of months ago, her husband, the steel tycoon Ahmed Ezz, moved in Egypt’s most elite circles, a parliamentary leader and political enforcer for the ruling party and a close friend of Gamal Mubarak, the son of then-President Hosni Mubarak.
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?”
But the public rage against Ezz also seems fueled by another factor: The boom years that created a super-rich class yielded no benefits for the masses, analysts say. About 44 percent of Egyptians dwell in deep poverty, surviving on less than $2 a day. Last year, a citizens group filed a complaint against Ezz for alleged price-gouging, branding him “the consumers’ first enemy.”
Visit any downtown coffee shop and customers young and old will emit an earful of allegations about Ezz — he’s a thief, they say, a monopolist who blocked cheaper imports and fed at the public trough. “Ezz is like a guy who has a weapon and threatens you: ‘Give me your money, or I will kill you,’ ” said Mohamed Gaaora, 54, who serves coffee and tends to customers’ hookah pipes.
He ticked off the names of former government ministers and Ezz’s fellow party bigwigs, including Gamal Mubarak, and pronounced, “They used to get together in nightclubs drinking wine and, at the same time, sucking the blood from the people.”
Ezz’s defenders say he deserved all the money he earned and came by it honestly. They portray the “Steel King” as a fanatically hard worker who received no special breaks, except, perhaps, being born into a family that had traded building materials for generations. He joined the business at 19 while an engineering student, his associates say, and drove more than 60,000 miles a year to increase its sales.
Ezz began investing in steel factories in the early 1990s, and his holdings grew progressively, among them the state-owned al-Dekheila Steel. Its acquisition in 2000 — the same year Ezz was appointed to parliament — now factors in the allegations against him. Investigators are looking into the legality of that deal and whether Ezz has used his political power to enrich himself by building a monopoly. Another focus is an industrial license he allegedly obtained improperly.
Ezz’s attorneys said that his holdings were well-established before he became a member of parliament and that he entered politics to serve the public, not to augment his fortune. His business acumen, not graft, drove a tenfold increase in the company’s share price, they argue. By the end of 2010, the market value of Ezz’s holdings approached $2 billion.
“There is nothing wrong with being a dominant player — but maybe he is too good a capitalist,” said a friend who declined to be identified, citing concern for personal safety. “I think he was living in a big dream: that he would become the biggest steel manufacturer in the world, and that he could change the world. His thinking became grandiose.”
In 2007, Ezz caused a media sensation when he took as his third wife a fellow member of parliament, Shahinaz el-Naggar, a businesswoman from a wealthy family.
As would befit royalty, the size of her ring, the cost of the wedding and the honeymoon all became the source of public fascination and sometimes bilious comment. (Ezz remains married to his first wife, Khadiga Yassin, the mother of their two grown daughters; he has been married to Abla since 1988.)
Ezz’s detractors also accuse him of using his power both in parliament and as chief party whip to rig elections for the National Democratic Party and clear the path for Gamal Mubarak to assume his father’s mantle. Although Ezz fancied himself part of a new guard of reformers working from within to gradually democratize Egypt, activists saw him as an apologist for decades of authoritarian excess.
In an interview with Christiane Amanpour on CNN a year ago, Ezz roundly defended the 30-year duration of emergency rule in Egypt: “You have your Patriot Act. Our emergency law is our Patriot Act,” he said. “That has only and exclusively been used to either combat terror or to avert the threat of terror. In no way has it been used to suppress either political or social or economic life.”
Amanpour appeared flabbergasted by the assertion: “Oh, my goodness,” she said.
Ezz’s devotion to the regime counted for little when Mubarak, then the president, began offering serial concessions to the freedom-demanding crowds that amassed in Tahrir Square in January and February. Even before Mubarak resigned Feb. 11, prosecutors targeted Ezz. His assets were frozen; he was banned from travel.
His family and friends say he soon concluded that he was being scapegoated and sacrificed. Ezz had become, they say, a Bride of the Nile — a reference to the Pharaonic-era custom of throwing virgins into the river in hopes of stopping the angry, rising floodwaters. It didn’t work, but the sacrifices continue, even as other elements of the old guard — particularly those with close ties to the military — remain unscathed.
When Ezz’s attorneys learned that prosecutors had summoned him for an investigative interview on Feb. 17, they advised him to pack a bag — they knew he was headed for jail.
Once in custody, Ezz was put on public display, along with fellow inmates such as the housing and tourism ministers, who, like him, were accused of enriching their businesses through government roles.
Videos shot by those in the crowd show the men being hauled off in a police vehicle that could barely breach a swarm of several hundred shouting people, many banging on its sides as it passed.
And here is Ezz, the once-impeccable dresser, in a white prison uniform, sitting on a bench in a courtroom cage against a concrete wall, staring blankly like a man waiting for a bus that never seems to come.
“Oh my God, it breaks my heart,” Abla Ezz said, watching one of the YouTube clips on her laptop. “Where are the human rights?”
She translated the insults hurled by the courtroom spectators: “You sold the country. . . .We want our money back!”
“What money?” she asked angrily. “He worked for it!”
Ezz’s trial, originally scheduled to begin late last month, has been postponed, with no new date announced. He has been denied bail.
“I refute all of the allegations brought against me, and I know that a fair and proper legal process would prove my innocence,” the tycoon said in a statement distributed on his behalf by a powerhouse Washington public relations firm, Qorvis Communications.
“I don’t ask people to love Ahmed Ezz,” his wife said. “It’s about justice.”
In the lobby lounge of the Four Seasons, she sipped espresso and bemoaned the empty tables around her.
The beautiful people just don’t come out like they used to anymore: “I feel we are going back to the black, dark ages,” she said.
She nervously extracted a Davidoff cigarette from one of the two packs in front of her, then proceeded to light the wrong end.
“Upside down,” she said with an embarrassed laugh, stubbing out the smoldering filter. “Like the country.”
Special correspondent Muhammad Mansour contributed to this report.