The Tories' new treasurer: A billionaire Egyptian with a controversial record
Back in his homeland, the appointment of Egyptian billionaire Mohamed Mansour as senior treasurer of the UK’s Conservative Party has attracted much interest.
Egyptians who know Mansour, or know of his work, told Middle East Eye that he would bring decades of experience in business and politics to his new role.
"He has used his personal experience as a successful businessman to reach this position," said Mohamed Al-Orabi, Egypt's former foreign minister.
“Egyptian and Arab businessmen have always been present in British political circles. Mansour will bring his vast expertise into his new role,” Tarek Fahmy, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, told MEE.
“Mansour will of course create some kind of communication between the UK and Arab countries,” Orabi said. “It is a great thing for an Arab to have influence on an important party like the Conservative Party. Mansour is connected to a large network of businessmen in London. This network will ensure his success,” the former foreign minister told MEE.
But there is another view of Mansour in Egypt. His family’s vast influence means that criticism of him is usually kept out of the limelight, but his many years as part of the North African country’s elite were not without scandal.
Mansour’s new role was announced at a private function in London on Monday by Conservative Party leader and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
Initially, the Tories would not confirm the role officially, with party sources simply briefing the press. Mansour has since stated his “great honour and privilege” and noted that as a “proud British citizen” he looked forward to supporting the “party and the country”.
Tory treasurers have attracted controversy in recent years, with nine of them going on to receive peerages. Given that they operate in the middle of finance and politics, and at the heart of the British establishment, they are never too far away from questions about money and influence.
Mansour, who is reportedly worth $2.5bn, is no different. He has donated £600,000 to the Conservative Party through his private company Unatrac. He has pledged an additional £2m to help revive the party’s coffers in the run-up to the UK’s 2024 election and was last year given a role on the government’s advisory investment council in the guise of his role as founder of his family-owned investment firm, Man Capital.
The Egyptian is also known to be a member of the "250 club" of donors to the party, which controversially allows exclusive access to ministers for donors who have provided over a quarter of a million pounds.
His appointment was further confirmed by Tory chairman Nadhim Zahawi, who described Mansour as “fantastic”.
Back in the limelight
The appointment has returned Mansour to the limelight in his native Egypt, with attention returning to a character who has a long record of successes and failures and has not been without his share of controversy.
Born in 1948 to a merchant family in the northern coastal city of Alexandria, Mansour studied engineering at North Carolina State University and graduated in 1968.
'He could not have taken personal responsibility for the accident. It was not his mistake after all'
- Mahmud al-Dabaa, transport specialist
His father, Loutfy Mansour, founded the Mansour Group in 1952. Now overseen by Mohamed, the family conglomerate employs 60,000 people and is among the largest in Egypt.
For a long time, the Mansour family was associated with a litany of international brands, for which they worked as agents.
These included Chevrolet, Marlboro, General Motors - the Mansour Group established GM dealerships in Egypt in 1975 - and Caterpillar, for which the family has exclusive distribution rights in Egypt and seven other African countries.
Some of the Mansour family’s other interests included Metro, Egypt’s largest supermarket chain, and McDonald’s franchises in Egypt. Mohamed himself was known as “Mansour Chevrolet”.
Some Egyptians got to know Mansour for the first time on 30 December 2005 when Hosni Mubarak, the country’s longtime ruler, appointed him as transport minister in the second government of then-Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif.
It was a time of change in Egyptian politics, with businessmen brought in to hold ministerial portfolios for the first time in a government made up mostly of people from the business world.
Mansour was known to be part of the team of Mubarak’s son, Gamal. The general public quickly came to think of this collection of businessmen as being in government to serve their own corporate empires, though Mansour gave up his position in his company throughout his time as a minister.
Those who closely followed his management style as transport minister credit Mansour with upgrading a number of the agencies affiliated with the ministry that operates Egypt’s railways, which are the oldest in Africa and the second oldest in the world, as well as thousands of public buses.
"He used modern technologies to revolutionise the work in these agencies," Mahmud al-Dabaa, a transport specialist who is now a member of the Committee on Transport in the Egyptian parliament, told MEE. "He would have moved ahead with upgrading Egypt's transport systems, if he had stayed in office for longer.”
Mansour's ministerial career came to an abrupt end on 27 October 2009, when he was asked by the prime minister to submit his resignation.
Three days earlier, two passenger trains rammed into each other in El Ayyat, a city around 45km southwest of the Egyptian capital Cairo, leaving at least 50 people dead and 30 injured.
The crash caused a wave of public anger and led to calls for the minister to be sacked. When he appeared in parliament the following day, Mansour refused to resign, saying the crash was not his personal mistake.
"He could not have taken personal responsibility for the accident," Dabaa said. "It was not his mistake after all."
That did not matter. The day after his appearance in parliament, he was told to resign by the prime minister. It was a job he had cherished since his days as a university student in the United States, but he was not to be given a second chance.
Less than two years later, Mubarak, Egypt's authoritarian ruler for three decades, was removed from office in the wake of widespread mass protests.
The defiant mogul
Mansour's defiance in parliament following the train tragedy was probably indicative of his combative spirit. Soon after leaving office, he returned to run his and his family's business empire.
Following Mubarak’s removal from office a scandal involving Mansour’s family business emerged, threatening to strip him of the power and wealth he had enjoyed for so long.
Mansour was accused of partnering up with his cousin, Ahmed al-Maghrabi, who had served as housing minister under Mubarak, to buy thousands of square kilometres of land to construct a residential compound for a fraction of its market price.
The case dated back to 2007, when a plot of land on an island in the Nile in Aswan was sold to a company owned by Mansour and Maghrabi for significantly less than a rival offer tabled by a Libyan investor.
Maghrabi had used his influence to obtain the land, but the case was uncovered quickly, prompting Mubarak to ask the governor of Aswan to withdraw the plot of land and return it to the market at its real value. The case did not reach the courts but was raised in parliament.
In 2011, though, Maghrabi was sentenced to five years in jail for easing the acquisition of another plot of land by another businessman. And research by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that HSBC had secured hundreds of millions of dollars for Mansour and his cousin.
Stephen Green, the bank’s chairman at the time, went on to serve as a minister in David Cameron’s Conservative coalition government and is now a lord.
Following the scandal, Mansour vanished from the news, only to reappear in March this year when it emerged that he was interested in buying Chelsea Football Club from Roman Abramovich.
"When you have your second chance, seize it, learn from it and be grateful for it," Mansour told graduates of his alma mater, North Carolina State University, in May.
In Egypt, observers say Mansour will use his contacts with the business community in the UK and elsewhere to succeed in his new role as treasurer of the Conservative Party.
"Mansour will surely use his qualifications and contacts to leave his mark on his new job," said Fahmi.
Whatever else he has done, he has always made his mark.