The Mubarak mansions

Mubarak and his sons were just handed three- and four-year sentences on embezzlement charges. To understand the case, and get a detailed example of how the ruling family routinely stole from the public coffers, read this excellent piece of investigative journalism by Hossam Bahgat. Sifting through the court documents and talking to a whistle-blowing investigator, Bahgat reconstructs a decades-old scam that also involves the ubiquitous Arab Contractors company and the current prime minister, Ibrahim Mehleb.  

Egyptian citizens have unknowingly paid millions of pounds for refurbishments, furnishings, appliances, utilities bills and maintenance of the two offices that Gamal and Alaa Mubarak used to conduct their profitable investment business on al-Saada Street in Roxy, Heliopolis. Alaa’s wife Heidi charged the state for every last expense in the renovation of a new villa in the posh Golf Area on Qattamiya Heights in New Cairo. When Gamal and his wife Khadiga had their first daughter in 2010, the Arab Contractors company paid the bill to design, build and furnish a separate wing for the newborn in the Uruba Palace in Heliopolis. 

At some point, first lady Suzanne Mubarak wanted to have a private office in the new, glamorous City Stars Intercontinental hotel and mall – Egyptian citizens paid for its interior design and every piece of furniture. When Mubarak’s 12-year-old grandson Mohamed died in a tragic playground accident in 2009, Arab Contractors used the telecom towers budget to fraudulently cover the costs of building a new private mausoleum. Many of the receipts describe expenses on the five villas that Mubarak and his sons privately owned in the el-Sheikh Red Sea resort and on a 25-feddan farm jointly owned by Gamal and Alaa on the road from Cairo to Ismailia.  

Other expenses covered by the state budget include an elevator to the roof of Alaa and Heidi’s Qattamya villa “to be able to adjust and maintain the satellite dishes on the roof,” a Jacuzzi pool in the Heliopolis residence, and a giant tent and candles for a party in one of the Sharm el-Sheikh villas. 

In Egypt, a corruption watchdog hit by backlash

Detailed article about the corruption investigations that Hesham Genena, head of the Central Auditing Office, has been trying to pursue -- and the judicial and media backlash against him.

In one case, Genena told AP, investigations revealed that some $3 billion dollars was misappropriated in land deals by officials from the police, intelligence agencies, the judiciary and prosecutors.

In another, he reopened a 3-year-old case over allegations that members of an advisory board for the state national communications regulator - which included the justice minister at the time - had received some $14 million in financial compensation.

What is unprecedented in Genena's move is his willingness to investigate so-called "sovereign agencies," the term referring to the most important and unquestionable arms of the state, such as the police, intelligence, judiciary and the presidency. He has been empowered by the constitution passed this year, which encourages the fight against corruption and supervision of state bodies.

There may be limits, however.

Notably, Genena has not made allegations against the most powerful state body of all, the military. The military took the unheard-of step of allowing the CAO under Genena to review the accounts of its extensive business holdings. Speaking to the AP, Genena said that his review had found no violations in the military's books.

His other moves have brought a heavy backlash. The former justice minister, who left office in a recent Cabinet reshuffle, accused Genena of insulting him, prompting prosecutors in February to refer Genena to trial.

After Genena publicly criticized the Judges Club, an association of judges, for not allowing its employees to be inspected, the head of the club accused him of insulting the judiciary, prompting another trial for Genena, which holds its next session next week.

If convicted in either case, it could fuel a drive by his opponents to impeach him.

In the media, a chorus of government supporters accuse him of sympathizing with the Brotherhood, which was branded by the government as a terrorist organization since the military ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi last summer.

Prominent pro-military journalist and former lawmaker Mostafa Bakry said Genena was spreading "lies" tantamount to "blatant incitement against state institutions for the benefit of the Brotherhood."

Ahmed Moussa, a TV presenter known with strong ties to security establishment, said Genena's allegations "sabotaged the economy."

 

The Crooks Return to Cairo

Bel Trew and Osama Diab, writing for FP on the potential exoneration of former spook, Sinai magnate and Mubarak moneyman Hussein Salem:

But for the first time since Mubarak was toppled, Salem's fortunes -- and that of other Mubarak-era businessmen -- may be shifting for the better. Since Egypt's generals ousted Islamist President Mohamed Morsi last July, Salem said he has been ecstatic and is planning his return to Cairo, his lawyer Tarek Abdel-Aziz told FP. The billionaire Mubarak confidant phoned in to a popular television program in January to offer a deal to the new military-backed government: Cancel my convictions and I'll give Egypt millions.
Egyptian officials publicly welcomed the offer.
"Mr. Hussein Salem and other noble businessmen ... your initiative is really appreciated," said Hany Salah, a cabinet spokesman, during the phone-in on local channel CBC. "Anyone who proposes a noble and good offer, then the least we can do is listen to him for the best of our beloved country."

Sharks weren't the only predators the Qadhafis took a shine to

Bad toys for bad boys

Straight-up Bond villain extravagances via Hannibal Qadhafi, reports the Financial Times. The dictator’s son was building himself a cruise ship with a shark tank:

Replete with marble columns, gold-framed mirrors and huge statues, the Phoenicia was to have included a 120-tonne tank of seawater for two sand tiger sharks, two white sharks and two blacktip reef sharks. Four resident biologists would have tended to the animals. The sharks’ nutritional needs mandated a dedicated food store.

No word on how much the liner cost Libyans – Hannibal skimmed off the top of the country’s port incomes – but the Phoenicia is being refitted by Swiss maritime conglomerate MSC for regular passenger duty at a cost of over US$720 million. Apparently Hannibal had extremely tacky taste and interior renovations have been rather involved. Sadly for passengers and Roger Moore enthusiasts, the shark tank will go – though that’s at least good news for the sharks.

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How USAID underwrote Egyptian corruption

This is an important story in the Washington Post about the USAID underwriting of Egyptian crony capitalism in the 1990s and 2000s:

Formed with a $10 million endowment from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Egyptian Center for Economic Studies gathered captains of industry in a small circle — with the president’s son Gamal Mubarak at the center. Over time, members of the group would assume top roles in Egypt’s ruling party and government.

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In Italy, Eulogies for Qadhafi's Wealth Mismanagement Fund

"Want to bunga-bunga or should we just zenga-zenga?"

An item in the Wall Street Journal reminds us that the ties between Libya and Italy's elites are very, very deep, and, as benefiting the lives of the rich and famous, sometimes produce strange little stories that illustrate much larger forces at work - in this case, the economic future of Libya following the National Transitional Council (NTC) and NATO's military successes: 

ANTRODOCO, Italy - Maurizio Faina, mayor of this small Italian town, has for three years been planning the construction of a lavish spa here thanks to one deep-pocketed financial backer: Col. Moammar Gadhafi.

Now that Col. Gadhafi is being ousted from power by his own people, "the whole plan is over, and it's sad," says the mayor, who had hoped to employ hundreds of people thanks to the €16 million ($22 million) resort.

Antrodroco's longing for Col. Gadhafi's largesse is a small, but significant, window into the vast economic ties between Italy and its former colony - a network that generated about $17 billion in annual trade before the conflict broke out.

Significantly, the spa deal began with a personal effort by Colonel Qadhafi (conduced alongside the Italian PM, Silvio Berlusconi, who has cultivated close ties with the deposed leader) and was, according to Italian sources, being managed by the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA), whose multibillion dollar assets were frozen several months ago. These assets include stakes in UniCredit, Italy’s largest bank (who largest foreign owner was, until recently, the Libyan government); Eni, the state energy company that produces the lion’s share (60%) of Libya’s oil exports; and Finmeccanica, a partly government-owned conglomerate with interests in Libya ranging from infrastructure to defense. The regime also had smaller stakes in various Italian sports, automotive, media and telecom interests – and was reported to be eying another, even larger, resort project in the Italian spa town of Fiuggi (so the Colonel would have a choice of resorts, presumably).

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Getting that corruption money back

UK it's our money

Last Friday, I took the above picture at the rally against corruption in Midan Tahrir. The man in the middle is holding a sign that says "UK, it's our money" to protest at slowness of recovery of the Mubaraks' (and others) assets in Britain. The money has probably already left Albion, but British Ambassador Dominic Asquith says that the Egyptian government has yet to provide the proof that the money was illegally acquired that British law requires.

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Pics from Tahrir anti-corruption march

I don't have time to write up the details, save to say I was impressed at both the turnout and the readiness with which people were criticizing the army. Here's the NYT's take and Jano Charbel's more militant account.

CAIRO — Thousands of demonstrators filled Tahrir Square on Friday for the largest protest in weeks, demanding that the ruling military council move faster to dismantle lingering aspects of the old regime.

Disenchantment with the military was the focus of many speeches and chants, and participants milling about were all too ready to grumble about the generals.

And Jano:

Thousands of protesters chanted for the immediate resignation of Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, chief of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces. Serving as Mubarak's defense minister for the past 20 years, Tantawi is currently shielding the dictator and his henchmen from justice, while ordering the trials of countless civilians before military tribunals. 

I heard some of this but it was not the dominant demand. I struck by a poster asking Tantawi to be more like Mandela and carry out a real transition. Jano has nice pics too.

Finally, here's a short movie clip that shows the mood:

1 Comment

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Tony Blair and the Wataniya scandal

Yesterday the Daily Mail put out a whopper of a story, alleging that Tony Blair used his position as Middle East envoy for the benefit of one his employers:

Tony Blair mounted an intense political lobbying campaign to rescue a struggling mobile-phone business owned by a client of the bank that pays him a £2 million annual salary. 

The firm, Wataniya, had already built a brand-new network in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian West Bank.

But it almost collapsed before launching its service, jeopardising a £450 million investment, because Israel’s government was refusing to let it use the frequencies it needed to operate.

Acting in his capacity as the international Middle East peace envoy, Mr Blair helped to save the company by spending months putting pressure on Israel’s prime minister and his colleagues in a bid to change their minds.

An investigation by The Mail on Sunday has revealed:

  • Mr Blair spoke of the need to get Wataniya up and running in order to boost the Palestinian economy. However JP Morgan, the American investment bank that employs him as a consultant, has a financial stake in Wataniya through Wataniya’s owner, the Qatari firm Qtel, which is an important client of JP Morgan.
  • Financial documents show that back in 2007, JP Morgan had been one of four ‘mandated lead arrangers’ of a $2 billion loan with which Qtel bought Wataniya from its original Kuwaiti owners. Last year, the bank joined a syndicate that lent Qtel a further $500 million, and became a ‘lead arranger’ for a Qtel bond issue which raised yet another $1.5 billion.

In these deals, JP Morgan would have been paid many millions of pounds in fees, and if the loans had gone bad, could have been exposed to substantial losses. ‘Its original exposure was probably around $200 million,’ one Wall Street expert said yesterday.

The article also has plenty about the longstanding issue around Wataniya, one of the biggest examples of corruption in the Palestinian Authority. The amazing thing is that Wataniya has been a priority not only for Blair and the Palestinian leadership, but also for the US. Reuters reported last year that US aid had been redirected towards the company:

RAMALLAH, West Bank, April 24 (Reuters) - U.S. aid in the form of loan guarantees meant for Palestinian farmers and other small to mid-sized businesses has been given to a mobile phone firm backed by President Mahmoud Abbas and Gulf investors.

The shift in U.S. taxpayer support to Wataniya Palestine, a joint venture between a Kuwaiti and Qatari telecoms group and a holding company for public assets, the Palestine Investment Fund (PIF), has dismayed sponsors of small private enterprise. 

Its supporters counter that help for Wataniya Palestine is good for jobs and free markets at a time when Washington is throwing its weight, and money, behind Abbas as a bulwark against Hamas Islamists in Gaza and as a partner in efforts to relaunch peace negotiations with Israel.

Among the firm's advocates is Middle East envoy Tony Blair, who pressed Israel to grant Wataniya Palestine radio frequencies so the company can challenge a monopoly long held by PalTel.

Mohammad Mustafa, Abbas's chief economic adviser and chairman of both the PIF and Wataniya Palestine, said the $16 million in loan guarantees for Wataniya were justified by the global credit crunch and the company's potential to bolster the Palestinian economy. He said plenty of guarantees remained to boost smaller businesses, as intended by programme sponsors.

But former PIF board members and advisers, speaking on condition of anonymity, challenged the justification for granting U.S. loan guarantees when Wataniya Palestine's financial backers were highly profitable.

"They don't need to provide them a guarantee. They are not the targeted beneficiary," said Samir Barghouthi, general manager of the Arab Centre for Agricultural Development, which helps small businesses. "This is not acceptable."

In Gaza, people have been imprisoned for several years and prevented from reconstructing after being used as target practice, with no possibility to defend themselves, by the IDF. In the West Bank Palestinians continue to have their lives micro-managed by Israelis and to be bullied and stolen from by settlers. In the meantime, we have a Quartet envoy who uses his position to do business and a US agenda driven by corporate welfare and filling the pockets of Mahmoud Abbas, his family and his friends. And people wonder why there is no confidence in the peace process or the PA?

Update: An alert reader points out that Blair also consults for the Kuwaiti government, which used to own about 24% of Wataniya:

Tony Blair Associates has as a client Kuwait, and by implication its royal family, while Blair has met with the finance minister of Kuwait while representing JPMorgan Chase. Wataniya Palestine is substantially (57%) owned by investors from Qatar and... Kuwait. For the former, it's Qatar Telecom. But for the later, it's the Kuwait Investment Authority, which operates on behalf of the State of Kuwait -- Tony Blair Associates' client.  So when Blair lobbies for Wataniya, who is he representing?

Maybe Tony Blair should just give up either the Quartet envoy position or his consultancy. Or is it that the unpaid Quartet gig is just too lucrative for his consultancy?

[Thanks, J.]

Links for Dec.24.09

LRB · Adam Shatz · Wanting to Be Something Else | Adam Shatz on Orhan Pamuk. ✪ UN gives mud brick huts to Gaza war homeless | I'm not sure Hassan Fathi-style mud brick homes will work in Gaza - doesn't it rain a lot there? This story also does not say whether they are building with mud bricks because the blockade makes other materials unavailable. ✪ Renewed Lebanese drug trade hikes Mideast tensions - Yahoo! News | Return of cannabis and poppy cultivation in the Bekaa (but had it really ever gone away?) ✪ الآراء من الغرب Views from the Occident: 'Ashura Artwork: Part I | Graphic posters from Shia martyrology. ✪ BBC News - Lockheed secures $842m Morocco contract | For a bunch of F-16s. ✪ FT.com / UK - Moussavi sacked as pressure mounts for a trial | Challenger to Ahmedinejad targeted. ✪ Cameron under pressure to explain £100,000 funding linked to Lebanese former arms dealer | Politics | guardian.co.uk | Those European politicians sure love Arab money.
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Links for 11.25.09 to 11.26.09

Le journal hebdomadaire | Abou Bakr Jamai's imagines a letter from a Sahrawi. ✪ For Jews, roiling Yemen no longer place to call home | On persecution of the less than 350 remaining Yemeni Jews. ✪ MyMemory - Machine translation meets human translation | Uses records of translations to provide best one possible, Arabic possible. ✪ BBC iPlayer - Document: 23/11/2009 | BBC radio show on Britain's role in the Oman coup of 1970. ✪ AFP: Court jails Moroccan rights activist over drug case | Outrageous imprisonment of whistleblower for denouncing official corruption. ✪ Yemeni refugees caught up in Middle East's forgotten war | World news | The Guardian | Is it forgotten if the Guardian and others keeps on talking about this war, though? It's more that most of the world doesn't care. ✪ Q&A: Iraq war inquiry | UK news | guardian.co.uk | Interesting info - and note, no such inquiry in the US... ✪ Joe Sacco | The Observer | Interview with the cartoonist author of "Palestine" and "Footnotes form Gaza." ✪ Le Figaro: Uri Davis, Juif et dirigeant palestinien | About an Ashkenazi Jewish Israeli who converted to Islam and joined Fatah. ✪ Is Everybody Disappointed In Obama? | TPMCafe | Because he's a coward, that's why. ✪ Who's Paying?: The Case for More Transparent Policy Discourse | Stephen M. Walt | "Not surprisingly, the exposure of Galbraith's dealings has caused some controversy in Iraq, though remarkably little in Washington." ✪ SHE2I2: Egyptian court upholds comic book ban, fines creator & publisher | "Metro" ban upheld. ✪ Marwan Barghouti: Peace talks with Israel have failed - Haaretz | "I do not see that there are fundamental political differences between Fatah and Hamas." ✪ Morocco relishes dual identities - Variety | On Morocco's film industry. ✪ Public Service Announcement | Center for a New American Security | Andrew Exum stops blogging. I understand him...
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Links for 11.12.09 to 11.15.09

Violence Flares Ahead of Algeria-Egypt Soccer Match - The Lede Blog - NYTimes.com | The NYT's blog The Lede has a nice post about the Algeria-Egypt, game, so I don't have to do it as I don't even like football. ✪ Daily News Egypt - Egypt Among States Attempting To Weaken Un Anti-Corruption Convention Enforcement Mechanism | Egypt and others against review mechanism for corruption convention. ✪ The Young Brotherhood in Search of a New Path | Khalil al-Anani. ✪ The Brotherhood vs. Al-Qaeda: A Moment Of Truth? | Jean-Pierre Filiu. ✪ The Saturday Profile - An Arms Dealer Returns, Now Selling an Image - Biography - NYTimes.com | Profile of arms dealer Adnan al-Khashoggi, who apparently has fallen on hard times. Still, I'd like to know why he met with Richard Perle in 2002. ✪ Blogging Imam Who Knew Fort Hood Gunman and 9/11 Hijacker Goes Silent - The Lede Blog - NYTimes.com | Can't believe this guy has not been arrested prior to leaving the US. ✪ 'Going Muslim' - Forbes.com | NYU professor "goes desi" after Texas massacre. Is this just Indian (I assume the professor is originally Indian or Sri Lankan) prejudice against Muslims? I wonder if the next time an Asian shoots people at a college we'll say, "going oriental"... Shame on you, Forbes. ✪ Palestine: Salvaging Fatah | ICG's new report on Palestine. [PDF]
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Links for 10.22.09

Corruption au Maghreb: Mode d’emploi | On corruption in the Maghreb, especially Algeria. ✪ Algeria-Watch: Diar Echems ne décolère pas | If you're interested in following the recent social unrest in Algiers, Algeria-Watch is the place to do it. ✪ Tunisie: une journaliste du "Monde" refoulée à l'aéroport de Tunis | Le Monde's Florence Beaugé barred from entering Tunisia after critical reporting and ahead of presidential elections on Oct. 25. ✪ Abu Khaldoun | New blog on things Middle Eastern. ✪ Le Figaro: Alger sur une poudrière | Riots in poor area of Algiers highlight undertow of social tensions. ✪ EgyptAir guards thwart attempted hijacking of flight from Istanbul to Cairo; suspect arrested - WGN |
A Sudanese man used a plastic knife from the in-flight meal to threaten flight attendants after the plane left Turkish airspace and demanded that the flight be diverted to Jerusalem, the official said. Guards on the flight were able to detain the man and no one was hurt, he said. The flight landed safely at Cairo airport. The man was arrested and was being questioned by state security, the official said. The Boeing aircraft was carrying 87 passengers, a Cairo police official said. He identified the suspect as Mohammed Hamad Nourain, 26, and said he used a passport with a phony name to board the flight. The man told flight attendants he wanted to "liberate Jerusalem," the police official said.
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Links for 08.21.09 to 08.22.09

Survey of Business Environment for Small and Medium- Sized Enterprises in Egypt | Survey of Egyptians SMEs, focuses on corruption perception. ✪ Who Should Rule Egypt? | Baheyya lays out an argument between three possible types of rule in Egypt -- hereditary succession, military rule, and parliamentary rule -- and makes the point that Hosni Mubarak has unwittingly opened up the debate over how Egypt should be ruled. ✪ Libya and Muammar Qaddafi, 40 years on: How to squander a nation's potential | The Economist | Poor Libya. ✪ Nile Delta: 'We are going underwater. The sea will conquer our lands' | Environment | The Guardian | Jack Shenker has a great story on rising salinity levels and the impact of global warming in the Nile Delta. ✪ Hilo Hero: H.P. Lovecraft | Happy Birthday H.P. Lovecraft. I highly recommend the essay on him by the French reactionary writer (and one of my favorites, to be honest - I don't care about his views on Islam) Michel Houellebecq.
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