Egypt corruption: In the first part of our special investigation on the corruption that has blighted Egypt, Bradley Hope examines the assets of ousted ruler Hosni Mubarak and his family.
Mubarak family worth hundreds of millions, not billions, investigators say
CAIRO // Compared to the Arab Spring's other toppled rulers in Tunisia and Libya, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak lived an abstemious life, his only widely known indulgence a Red Sea villa to which he often slipped away.
Yet that reputation for frugality never quieted speculation that the longtime Egyptian ruler, his family and his confidants were exploiting their positions of power to salt away billions of dollars in illicitly obtained funds in private bank accounts both in Egypt and abroad.
But a confidential report prepared for Egyptian prosecutors by investigators working for Egypt's Ministry of Justice indicates that the wealth amassed by Mubarak and his family never remotely approached the billions thought to have been accumulated by Muammar Qaddafi and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
The report, a copy of which has been obtained by The National, reveals that Mubarak and his family have cash deposits of some US$300 million, as well as additional funds, properties and company stakes of undetermined value.
The only assets held specifically in the ex-president's name are a villa in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh - number 211 located on 15,640 square metres of land - and a third-floor apartment located in the Mediterranean coast city of Marsa Matrouh.
Mubarak and his wife Suzanne also have unspecified amounts of "liquid funds" in accounts in the National Bank of Egypt, says the five-page report, dated October 16, 2011. The former first lady also has an account in the Paris-based bank, Societe Generale.
Although authorities have not disclosed the exact sum contained in these accounts, an official in Egypt's Illicit Gains Authority (IGA) said investigators have not located the hidden riches many Egyptians expected them to find. "We have found [Egyptian] billions of pounds, not billions of dollars," said Ahmed Saad, a senior counsellor in the IGA.
A majority of the Mubarak family's wealth is held in the names of Mubarak's sons, Alaa and Gamal, the report says.
Along with their wives, the pair were found to have 34 properties, including large plots of land, apartments scattered across Cairo and villas in gated communities on the edge of the capital. About $300 million in cash was uncovered in joint Swiss bank accounts belonging to Alaa and Gamal, the report says.
The pair also held stakes in companies such as Bullion Company Ltd, a Cyprus-based investment company, and Palm Hills Development, one of Egypt's largest property developers, and had a securities account with the US company Charles Schwab amounting to $3.3 million.
Hundreds of millions of dollars is hardly a paltry sum for the family of a former air force officer who was born into modest circumstances in a Nile Delta town, let alone in a country where some 33 million - or 40 per cent of the population - lives on less than $2 per day.
Still, it is far short of the billions that Mr Mubarak and his family were believed to have accumulated during the years he presided over Egypt from the presidential palace in the Cairo district of Heliopolis and a state-supplied villa on the grounds of a nearby air base.
During the uprising that ultimately forced him to resign on February 11, 2011, Mubarak was frequently accused of "stealing" up to $70 billion from the state and hiding it away in secret accounts across the world.
It is not only the probes into the wealth of the Mubarak family that have yielded little.
Egyptian investigators have formally asked Switzerland, the United Kingdom, France, Liechtenstein and the United States to freeze the bank accounts of some former officials in his government and of businessmen with close links to him.
The total in those accounts? About $1.2 billion, said Mr Saad, who is also a member of a government-appointed judicial panel that is seeking to recover the assets.
Pockets of hidden wealth belonging the Mubarak family and their entourage may yet be discovered both in Egypt and abroad, and push the figure far higher.
Swiss authorities announced last week that some $1.07 billion in funds linked to rulers in four Arab Spring nations - Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria - had been blocked since early last year.
M Valentin Zellwegger, who oversees the government's task force for "potentate funds," said $755 million of that amount had been stashed away by Mr Mubarak and his aides.
Nevertheless, the findings of Egyptian investigators so far underscore the difficulty of accounting for - let alone recovering - the ill-gotten gains of former rulers who have used their positions of power to enrich themselves at the expense of their people.
With the aid of lawyers and financial advisers skilled at operating in the opaque corners of the international banking system, these rulers disguise improper financial transactions that may take years to uncover - if they are found at all, said Hussein Hassan, an anti-corruption expert at the Cairo office of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
The Egyptian government "knows that the amount of money they will find or prove was stolen is much less than people thought or said in Tahrir Square," he said.
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Anger at corruption, especially high-level profiteering, has been a major impetus for the upheavals that have rocked the Middle East since a fruit seller in a southern Tunisian town burned himself to death in December 2010 to protest graft-seeking local police.
As in Egypt, new authorities in Tunisia and Libya have staked their legitimacy on promises of reform and ending corruption, and they are now under intense pressure to make good on those pledges.
Libyan officials are stepping up their search for Qaddafi's hidden wealth, which is estimated at up to $200 billion - not a farfetched calculation, given his family's control of the North African country's sovereign wealth fund and other state assets.
In neighbouring Tunisia, Ben Ali's financial dealings are also under investigation. The non-governmental Tunisian Association for Financial Transparency reckons he stole up to $17 billion during his more than 23 years in power.
With so much money believed to be at stake, the political consequences of drawn-out struggles to recover the funds are far-reaching.
In Egypt, the public's insistence that tens of billions of dollars of funds have been stolen from the country has become a thorn in the side of President Mohammed Morsi, who campaigned on a platform of cleaning up government.
But while Mr Morsi has galvanized public support by deriding his predecessor's record on corruption, he has yet to outline the scope of the purported double-dealing and financial misconduct in Egypt under Mubarak.
Also, only a fraction of the Egyptians thought to have profited lucratively from their ties to the Mubarak family have been brought to account, leading to the spread of conspiracy theories that the old regime is still working to protect itself from within the government.
Mr Saad said he understands the impatience of Egyptians to set things right and how the prospect of recovering billions of dollars in stolen state money has gripped the public's imagination.
At the same time, he said, Egyptians do not understand the difficulty of unraveling the labyrinth of off-shore accounts and private companies they believe were used by Mubarak and his close associates to mask their stolen wealth.
"Asset recovery is something new for Egypt, even the idea of it," he said. "What we are learning is that all our politically exposed people were part of a kind of criminal organization, where transactions and profits were completely hidden through many techniques."
The current workload of Mr Saad's agency, the IGA, is daunting.
Created in the 1970s to investigate corruption by public officials and state agencies, the IGA has received some 600 cases since January 2011 and of those, 359 are still under investigation.
Besides the Mubarak family, the agency has focused its investigations on Hussein Salem, a billionaire with close ties to the former president, and Ahmed Ezz, the former chairman and managing director of Al-Ezz Dekheila Steel Company, the largest steel company in the Middle East.
Mr Ezz was a prominent member of the ruling National Democratic Party, now dissolved. He enjoyed close ties with Gamal Mubarak, according to Mr Saad.
In the febrile, post-Mubarak atmosphere of reform, outside scrutiny of the IGA's work is intense. The Legal Committee to Recover the Wealth of Egyptians, a non-governmental group of lawyers and financial experts, is conducting its own investigations into stolen wealth.
The group's chairman, Hossam Eissa, often lobbies for the cause on television and in local newspapers. He believes Egypt has failed to take serious steps toward investigating corruption.
"We lost a lot of time and gave these thieves time to send the money around the world," Mr Eissa said. "I think there is no political will to get the money back. Is this a conspiracy? We don't yet know."
Mr Eissa does not believe that the assets stolen from Egypt by the Mubarak family and their close associates amount only to hundreds of millions of dollars.
"The level of corruption in Egypt was unbelievable for 30 years," he said. "It can't be less than 10 to 15 billion dollars for Mubarak, his family and three four people close to him."
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The IGA is just one arm of the Egyptian government's efforts to recover stolen state wealth.
The Cairo public prosecutor is pursuing hidden wealth cases, too, sometimes in conjunction with the IGA. At least two other government agencies are also searching for illegally acquired assets inside the country.
President Morsi himself has formed a new panel to oversee legal requests and investigations, but the committee has yet to start its work.
Egyptian officials have also turned abroad for help in searching for hidden assets, hiring GPW Ltd., a corporate investigation firm in London, for some projects, Mr Saad said.
Patrick Grayson, a senior partner with GPW, formerly worked at Kroll Advisory Solutions, a another corporate investigations company based in New York, where he was a member of the team that helped hunt for Saddam Hussein's hidden wealth.
Also, Egypt's Ministry of Justice also has retained the London law firm of Stephenson Harwood to help with an extradition request of Youssef Boutros-Ghali, Egypt's minister of finance from 2004 to 2011 who boarded an airplane for the UK on the morning that Mubarak stepped down.
Egyptian authorities must move quickly, said Eric Lewis, a partner at the Washington law firm of Lewis Baach.
"They have lost time, but they can make up for it by making sure they create a coordinated international effort," said Mr Lewis, who has taken part in some of the world's largest and most complex asset recovery lawsuits in the past three decades.
"It needs to be done by a powerful and focused executive branch," he said. "Focus, speed and coordination are essential."
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Locating allegedly stolen assets is only a first step in recovering them, lawyers and specialists say. The other major challenge is to prove what laws were broken by siphoning off the funds.
If requests for the return of funds are found to be politically motivated or based on flimsy evidence, they can be refused.
"These court verdicts have to respect the rule of law not only in the country, but also acceptable by the countries where the funds are found," said Gretta Zinkernagel, the director of the International Centre for Asset Recovery in Switzerland.
The process is time-consuming and expensive, with no guarantee of success.
It took 15 years for the Philippines to return some of the ill-gotten funds transferred abroad by the Marcos family, Ms Zinkernagel noted. Even then, the recovered amount was just a fraction of the between $5 billion and $10 billion that the Marcoses are thought to have stolen from the country.
In Egypt, the case of Ahmed Ezz, the former chairman of the steel company that bears his name, augurs the long road ahead.
Mr Ezz was detained on February 17 on charges of misusing public funds and corruption. He was convicted in September 2011 of illegally obtaining business and sentenced to 10 years in prison and fined 660 million Egyptian pounds (US$110.9 million).
Earlier this month, he was sentenced to an additional seven years in prison and fined 19.3 billion Egyptian pounds for money laundering. He has denied any wrongdoing and has appealed the first conviction.
And what of the money?
Investigators have found hundreds of millions of dollars in three companies that they believe are either controlled directly by Mr Ezz or indirectly controlled through a shell company. The firms - Xandia Holdings Ltd., Vestal Trust and Marufidiv Est. - are registered in the European principality of Liechtenstein.
The accounts of Marufidiv alone contained $250 million, according to information provided to Egyptian authorities by officials in Vaduz.
But the Liechtenstein authorities have so far been unable to prove the origin of the funds or whether the funds are related to actions for which Mr Ezz has been convicted, said a judge at the Liechtenstein Court of Justice.
"On the basis of the documents available here it cannot be ascertained from where the assets received by the companies 'Xandia Holdings Ltd., 'Vestal Trust', and 'Marufidiv Est.' originally emanate and/or how the suspect Ahmed Abdel-Aziz Ezz came into possession of them", Carla Ranzoni wrote in a letter to Egyptian authorities dated June 27, 2012.
A coda in the letter poses yet more mysteries Egypt's corruption investigators must answer.
Some funds found in the Liechtenstein banks, Ms Ranzoni notes, came from the sale of shares in Ezz's steel company.
Did the company receive political favours from the Egyptian government? If so, do the proceeds from the sale of the shares belong to the Egyptian people?