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. From MENA (sent by the British embassy's press list, amusingly with an internal message to get out fast that they forgot to delete):

 

MENA 43
Egypt-Britain-Funds
Britain: Evidence needed for return of frozen funds of Egyptian officials
   CAIRO, April 6 (MENA) - Britain is fully ready to send back all frozen funds of Egyptian officials provided Egyptian authorities present the evidence that these funds were illegally obtained, the British Ambassador to Egypt said Wednesday.
   Fund recovery should take place in accordance with the British law, Dominic Asquith told MENA, noting that the British authorities asked Egypt over a month ago to prove that these funds were illegally obtained.
   "We are still waiting for the Egyptian response", he said.
   If the evidence is provided, the British court will investigate to verify its accuracy, and if proven true it will return the funds to Egypt, Asquith said.
   Asked whether there is a deadline for restoring these funds, he said there is no such thing and the Brtish authorities are waiting for evidence from Attorney General Abdel Meguid Mahmoud in this respect.
   There are ongoing contacts between British and Egyptian officials on this matter, the diplomat said, adding Egyptian officials are welcome to visit Britain to discuss this issue and also British officials can visit Egypt for the same discussion.
   Britain has prompted the European Union to quickly respond to the Egyptian request to freeze assets of Egyptian officials involved in corruption cases and issued an asset freeze decision that went into effect on March 22.
   About the exact value of Egyptian officials' frozen assets in Britain, the diplomat said he cannot give any speculations in this respect. (MENA)
SR/DA

And therein lies the rub: how easy will it be to prove that money was illegally acquired? The wealth of former regime officials may be way out proportion with their official income, but the work of tracking down the mechanism of illegal acquisition, particularly when they could use the full powers of the administration to make it seem legal, will be difficult. And it will be crucial to getting solid convictions in the domestic courts as well as securing the cooperation of more law-abiding states (which I suppose Britain mostly remains, even if Tony Blair's decision to close the corruption investigation in the BAe case might suggest it's wavering on this). The way it has proceeded so far, using the normal court system, this will take ages to go through the full appears process. But what are the alternatives?

One is an exceptional revolutionary court that tries top regime figures and confiscates whatever property you can get their hands on. It's not a free and fair trial, but is satisfyingly expedient. It will bring back nasty memories of Nasser's revolutionary tribunals, though, and you can expect a long debate on who should be tried there and who shouldn't.

Another is some kind of amnesty deal: give the money back and save your life. You might not get all the money, but it's something that some companies and individuals accused of corruption are already suggesting. Ahmed Ezz has offered [cache] to return his shares in Suez Steel, for instance. Palm Hills Development, the company majority-owned by the Mansour and Maghrabi families, have offered to return land allegedly illegally acquired.

Soon others outside of Egypt will be involved in this, too. A friend in Washington tells me that Qorvis, the PR company Ahmed Ezz hired several years ago to boost the idea of a reformed NDP, is now trying to get meetings with influentual DC types for his daughter, who is making the argument that Ezz is being scapegoated. I'm sure it won't have trouble finding defenders people willing to stand up for Ezz and his ilk in the name of economic stability. The argument that the corruption trials may go too far is already being made

As nice as it might be to get that money back, I still think there is a need for a wider airing out of the extent of corruption in the former regime that cannot take the shape of mere court proceedings, ordinary or revolutionary. This is why a truth commission is necessary, composed of people with a reputation for integrity that could compile a report highlighting how the regime operated, how corruption worked, and begin to do the work of making sure it cannot happen again. Just as for torture and police abuse, there needs to be a taking of stock that is infinitely more important than recuperating stolen money.

(As I wrote these lines, i just got the news that the preposterously corrupt former minister housing, Ibrahim Suleiman, has been arrested. Suleiman was most likely a front for others in the regime, including the Mubaraks, and this is what you need to get the bottom of.)

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.