Recovering assets after Mubarak’s arrest

Egyptians rejoiced at the detention of former President Hosni Mubarak and sons Alaa and Gamal. Many cheered at the charges leveled against them — financial corruption, abuse of power, and the instigation of acts of violence against pro-democracy protesters.

But for many, real justice will not have been served until the money the family allegedly embezzled returns to Egypt.

It is difficult to tell how long or plausible the search and procurement of the funds will be. An even bigger question is how much he actually holds — the most recent estimate was an outlandish $700 billion.

The whole process of finding, confirming and then proving that said funds were obtained illegally poses a huge, and possibly expensive, endeavor for the interim Egyptian government.

"This really is an impossible task," said Fawaz A. Gerges, a professor of Middle East international releations at the London School of Economics.

Forensic accounting on this scale takes experts, international cooperation, and money. The interim Egyptian government is not equipped to take this on, said Gerges.

The challenges of extraction were the topic of discussion at conference in Cairo on Tuesday hosted by Transparency International, a global anti-corruption organization.

"It will take time. But it is worth the work," said Hossam Issa, professor of commercial law at Ain Shams University and one of the panelists.

The question of how much money Mubarak and his family actually hold in and outside of Egypt has been a subject of debate since the early days of protests against the former president's regime.

After a February story in the British newspaper The Guardian put Mubarak's bank accounts at an estimated 70 billion dollars, protesters in Tahrir used the number in their slogans and chants. Many expressed disgust at his reported life of luxury. In March The Guardian published a mea culpa, saying that the 70 billion dollar estimate had been the work of one expert and was not a reliable figure.

In April, Egypt’s top prosecutor sent a memo to American and other governments warning that Mubarak could have stowed away up to $700 billion in cash, gold and other state-owned valuables. Titled “Request for Judicial Assistance,” the memo obtained by the American newspaper the Washington Post did not appear to contain any conclusive evidence of this stolen wealth.

Neither the estimated $700 billion nor the $70 billion reported in the Guardian have been independently confirmed, and both are believed to be over-inflated.

The memo, written by Prosecutor General Abdel Meguid Mahmoud, was intended to provide substantial evidence to countries, requiring them to freeze accounts that could belong to Mubarak. The Egyptian government has asked for international help from other countries since Mubarak stepped down on 11 Febuary after 30 years in power.

Not all countries have responded. Switzerland froze all bank accounts that were believed to be Mubarak's soon after he stepped down. But as of late march, Egyptian officials said America had not yet frozen any accounts.

The retrieval of the foreign assets of a deposed dictator can be a long and protracted process, but there are precedents. Countries such as Iran, Chile and the Philippines have seen the money of deposed leaders returned.

Thanks to international laws that red flag the transactions of all politically prominent figures, Egypt stands a chance of tracking down the money.

"If the individual is a politically exposed person, the bank must stop the money and report the transaction to regulatory authorities," said Jeremy Carver, an international lawyer and board member of Transparency International.

Mubarak is on the list of internationally politically exposed persons kept at all banks. This law, Carver said, means that there should be an electronic or paper trail of Mubarak's financial transactions for at least the past ten years.

United States and European governments also should, under this law, hand over money belonging to him in the face of incriminating evidence.

But it might not be easy for the Egyptian government to produce such evidence.

Egypt's ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has formed an official committee to investigate the Mubaraks' finances. The committee, made up of former judges, has yet to reveal publicly any findings.

The committee's secrecy and lack of cooperation with experts and international agencies is troubling, according to Issa. Without civil dialogue, the findings are not likely to be trusted by the Egyptian citizens who are already skeptical of the ruling council’s intention to actually prosecute the deposed ruler.

"They know nothing," said Issa who called the Army-formed committee “a joke” and inexperienced in these matters.

"Let us sit down and have a national plan for recovery, together," he said.

There are many ways the Mubaraks could have hidden their money. Numerical bank accounts can disguise the real holder of an account and many real estate holdings do not come down to a simple deed.

One example of the labyrinth of modern finance: a townhouse widely known to be owned by the Mubaraks in London was found by the New York Times to be owned by a Panamanian company overseen by another company in Muscat, Oman. A direct link to the Mubaraks has yet to be proven.

For this reason, many see direct political and personal pressure on Mubarak and sons as the best way to go about recovering any money. Bargaining should also factor into the process.

"That is why the most important thing is that they are in our hands, they are in prison," said Issa, because it will be easier for investigators to press them.

And it will require the help of people who were close to the ruling family.

"Everyone has stories," said Carver. "They all need to take that to authorities."

Mubarak would not have been tried in the first place had there not been some strong evidence that he was guilty, according to Heba Morayef, a Cairo researcher for Human Rights Watch.

"I don't think there would have been an investigation had the military not given a green light that they had evidence," she said.

And after the panel of experts met in Cairo, Issa said he was optimistic that with dialogue, international cooperation,  and international banking law experts, Egyptians could see the return of Mubarak's riches, and retribution for corruption he committed.

"It was a daily insult for 30 years," he said. "Now I have hope."

All of this, of course, assumes that Mubarak is lying about the state and location of his personal finances.

In a taped speech aired before his arrest on Al-Arabiya television, Mubarak denied accusations that he did not have any holdings outside of Egypt. He also denied corruption accusations and pledged to cooperate with investigators.

"Based on my financial disclosure report that confirms that I do not own any assets abroad, I agree to present any documents, reports or signatures that would help the prosecutor general ask the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to reveal any assets owned by me or my wife abroad," Mubarak said.

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