Almost two years after the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, the Islamist-backed government that succeeded him is stepping up its efforts to recover the illicit assets of former regime officials, in Egypt and abroad.
Earlier this month, on Jan. 13, an Egyptian court ordered a retrial of Mubarak, reopening an investigation into a number of separate cases against the former president himself, his sons, Alaa and Gamal, former interior minister Habib El Adly, businessmen Hussein Salem and Ahmed Ezz and former oil minister Sameh Fahmy.
The new trial marks a political standoff between the financial power centers of the last decade of Mubarak’s reign and the new economic elites emerging in Egypt, according to Tarek Osman, author of "Egypt on the Brink." “This confrontation is of significant importance to what’s happening now in Egypt,” he said. The date for the new trial has not been set.
The former president, who is being held at the Maadi hospital due to his health condition pending a new trial, was acquitted of all corruption charges in the first verdict last June. His retrial, and announcement of new evidence, will start the legal process from scratch.
“The circumstances this time are completely different because of new evidence collected by the presidential fact-finding commission, which will be reflected in the case procedures,” Mohamed Gouda, a spokesman for the ruling Freedom and Justice Party, or FJP, said. President Mohamed Morsi formed the fact-finding commission after he assumed office in July 2012.
“The new evidence will result in death sentences or lifetime imprisonment, not only for [Hosni] Mubarak and El Adly, but others from the former regime figures,” Gouda predicted. Specifically, Gouda said new evidence was found against Hussein Salem and Mubarak’s sons, Alaa and Gamal, his heir apparent.
In the meantime, the new regime has been trying to recover some of the funds the Mubaraks and their circle are suspected of embezzling. Officials have been negotiating with former members of the Mubarak regime to drop certain charges, as well as travel bans that have been in place for the past two years. In some cases, the government may have accepted to drop charges in exchange for the money.
Officials for the Freedom and Justice Party cited Decree Four, issued by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in January 2012, as legal basis for the settlements. The decree allows for reconciliation in corruption cases in exchange for monetary settlement. “It is still intact, and neither the parliament nor the Shura Council canceled it,” Mokhtar El Ashry, a legal consultant for the party, said.
The push to recover illicit funds comes at a time when the government’s need for liquidity is more urgent than ever, with dwindling foreign currency reserves, the Egyptian pound at historic lows and waning investor confidence in the country.
In total, according to the FJP, the government recovered a total of $3.17 billion in settlements with former Mubarak government officials and their family members.
Last week, the Mubarak family agreed to pay around $20 million to settle some of the bribery charges against the president’s entourage, including multimillion-dollar gifts to Mubarak from Al Ahram, the government-owned foundation that publishes the country’s biggest newspaper. The foundation itself has not been charged with bribery.
Farid El Deeb, a lawyer representing the Mubarak family, said the Al Ahram charges have been dropped following the settlement, and no other negotiations are pending.
Billionaire Or (Relative) Pauper?
Immediately following the January 2011 uprising, several media reports and U.S. intelligence estimates put the Mubarak family fortune anywhere between $5 billion to $70 billion.
The higher figure strains credibility; it would be more money than anybody on the Forbes list of the world’s richest people has. But even at $5 billion, the Mubaraks would be comfortably placed at No. 205 in the rankings of billionaires. That’s more money than Virgin founder Richard Branson has, to quote just one household name.
“Two years later, we are still guessing how much,” Ashraf Khalil, author of "Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation," said.
El-Deeb dismisses these estimates; According to the attorney, the ex-president’s personal wealth amounts to the $980,000 held at the National Bank of Egypt. “This is all he earned during the years in the Air Force, [then] as vice president and then president,” El-Deeb said. “That is all he has.”
Given how closely interlinked the Mubarak family’s private ventures have been with government operations, it is not easy to estimate what portion of those alleged billions may have been illicitly acquired.
Last August, Morsi set up a judicial commission to investigate the foreign assets of Mubarak’s family and associates in Switzerland, Canada, the UK and the U.S. That’s all the Mubarak children’s money, acquired independently, according to El Deeb: “The [ex] president and his wife have no assets outside Egypt,” he said.
Still, in 2011 Swiss authorities froze at least $439 million in funds associated with the former regime. Almost two years later, the funds remain frozen pending the investigation by the Egyptian authorities “to determine, through criminal proceedings, whether these assets were illicitly acquired,” according to a statement by the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs.
In the UK, the Treasury's Asset Freezing Unit blocked around $134 million worth of assets linked to the Mubarak family and associates. Egyptian authorities have been sparring with UK officials for not freezing and returning the funds fast enough, going as far as suing the UK Treasury in March 2012. (Speaking in Cairo last week, Jeremy Browne, minister of state for crime prevention, cited Egypt’s political instability as a reason for delaying restitution.)
The new trial of an unpopular dictator is a risky political gambit for Morsi ahead of upcoming parliamentary elections in late February. “It’s going to be unpopular if these people go free,” author Khalil said. On the other hand, if the government can recover billions from settlements, “then it will be a big boost for the economy.”
Whether the new trial will result in a thorough investigation of corruption charges under Mubarak’s regime, based on substantial evidence, is another matter. “Mubarak is being tried according to his own laws,” Amr Adly, economic and social justice director at Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a Cairo-based legal advocacy group, said.
According to the latest report by the Institute, the prosecution did not open its case until May 2011, allowing former regime officials months to get ready -- and hide the traces of any wrongdoing. “I’m not sure they’ll ever find any evidence,” Adly said.