Egypt: Net Tightens Around Mubarak Cronies

Source: IPS News

Toppled Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s cronies and political allies could not be touched for years, but his departure has stripped them of protection. Now they are under investigation for corruption and graft – and many Egyptians expect to finally see justice.

“It’s a beautiful time for all Egyptians,” says Sherif El-Sharkawy, a small business owner in Cairo. “We watched for years as these men raped our country with impunity.”

Anti-corruption campaigners accuse Mubarak and his cronies of treating Egypt as their own private estate, plundering its resources and funnelling their ill-gotten wealth into offshore accounts. They maintain that a small group of ruling party officials and business tycoons with close ties to Mubarak were given preferential treatment in land deals, allowed to buy state assets at a fraction of their value, and that they enriched themselves at the public’s expense.

Suspicions of corruption run deep, but it has always been difficult – and dangerous – to prove them.

Evidence submitted to prosecutors and anti-corruption agencies was routinely ignored or suppressed, say activists. Whistle-blowers and journalists who wrote about these cases were assaulted, fined or jailed.

Ahmed Sakr Ashour, professor of business administration at Alexandria University, says Egypt’s corruption watchdog agencies were rendered toothless by legislation that made them accountable to the president. Cases were only pursued when given a green light from above; results were usually pre-ordained.

Mubarak’s ouster on Feb. 11 has given these agencies a greater degree of independence, but poor coordination among some half dozen anti-corruption units – and the presence of regime loyalists within their ranks – could hamper investigations. There is also a question of just how far the military that is now running the country is willing to permit scrutiny of the corrupt network in which it was purportedly entangled.

“There are many conflicts (of interest) that might undermine investigations,” Ashour told IPS.

Analysts say the trials of four senior Mubarak regime officials could serve as a barometer of the military-run government’s resolve to bring the old regime to justice. The four men, including three former cabinet ministers and a former ruling party leader, were referred to a Cairo criminal court this week on corruption charges.

Former interior minister Habib El-Adly – currently under separate investigation for his role in orchestrating the deadly use force on anti- Mubarak demonstrators – was indicted for money laundering and profiteering. Prosecutors froze El-Adly’s accounts after a bank notified oversight agencies that a private contractor had transferred 750,000 dollars to his personal account.

“I can see no reason why a police official, or any public servant for that matter, should receive this much money in his personal account,” says El- Sharkawy. “It smells fishy.”

Ex-tourism minister Zoheir Garranah was arraigned on charges of graft and squandering public assets. Prosecutors claim that as tourism minister he used his position to give preferential treatment to his friends and business associates, allocating state land to them at a fraction of its actual value. He is also accused of blocking operating licences to their competitors despite dozens of court orders that ruled his actions illegal.

Similar accusations have been levelled against Ahmed El-Maghrabi, the former housing minister. Public records show that as housing minister he allocated various state lands to Palm Hills Development (PHD), a firm in which he is a partner. Some of these transactions were challenged in court, and in at least one instance Mubarak too annulled the sale, yet each time El-Maghrabi appeared to emerge unscathed from the scandals.

“I will not be a scapegoat. I am innocent,” he shouted from behind the courtroom cage as proceedings opened.

Many Egyptians hold a special contempt for Ahmed Ezz, a former ruling party insider who was a close friend and confidant of Mubarak’s son, Gamal. It was Ezz, say his detractors, who used his political connections to monopolise the country’s steel industry, gaining control over 60 percent of the market. And it was Ezz, they contend, who engineered the last year’s sham parliamentary elections.

“Ezz ran the biggest steel company in Egypt and was widely perceived as corrupt,” says Alia El-Mahdi, dean of the Faculty of Political Science and Economics at Cairo University. “But none of the charges presented against him ever stuck.”

The steel magnate is now in court on corruption charges related to his controversial acquisition of permits to establish two steel factories at the southern end of the Suez Canal. Prosecutors are also expected to re-examine suppressed evidence that Ezz took control of a state-owned steel plant illegally – a charge that has been circulating since 2000.

Meanwhile, Egyptian authorities have frozen the assets of dozens of other businessmen, former ministers and NDP officials suspected of corruption, and issued travel bans to prevent them from leaving the country. Prosecutors have requested international assistance in finding and repatriating the foreign assets of these individuals.

Global Financial Integrity (GFI), a Washington-based corruption watchdog, estimates that 57 billion dollars in illicit assets were transferred out of the country by top government officials between 2000 and 2008.

“The amount of corruption under the Mubarak regime was staggering,” says Ashour. “What has been uncovered so far is just the tip of the iceberg.”

While activists have applauded the public prosecutor’s efforts to pursue corrupt elements within Mubarak’s inner circle, they are critical of its “deferential treatment” of the ousted dictator and his family. Some estimates put the Mubarak family’s total wealth as high as 70 billion dollars.

Security officials claim Mubarak’s domestic assets were frozen the minute he stepped down. It took ten days, however, before the public prosecutor requested the assistance of the foreign ministry in contacting governments around the world to freeze the ousted dictator’s foreign assets.

Many Egyptians, including El-Sharkawy, wonder why it took so long to act. “It shows there are still people in power who are protecting Mubarak,” he concludes.