Will Egypt ever get its ‘looted’ money back?

Getting this money back was a major demand of the revolution of Jan. 25, 2011

Sonia Farid
Sonia Farid - Special to Al Arabiya News
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For the past few years, a sizable portion of the Egyptian public has been preoccupied with the wealth of former President Hosni Mubarak and his clique. Getting this money back was a major demand of the revolution of Jan. 25, 2011. Since 2011, there has been much talk of efforts to reclaim it, but nothing has materialized. With Mubarak, his sons and several top aides acquitted of several of the charges they had faced after the revolution, hope has started to fade.

The issue sprang back to life in June 2015, with Switzerland extending the freezing of the funds of Mubarak and 31 of his clique until 2017, and the subsequent presidential decree establishing a new committee to look into the matter once more. The National Committee for the Repatriation of Egyptian Money and Assets Abroad was not greeted with the same old enthusiasm, as many wondered if it would be any different from its failed predecessors.

Former Prime Minister Ali Lotfi said several factors contributed to the failure of the previous four governmental committees to reclaim the money. “The lengthy judicial process in Egypt was a major obstacle. The money will only be returned after the verdict against the person who owns it is final,” he said.

“A sentence in the text of the verdict has to clarify that the money of the defendant belongs to the Egyptian state and has to be returned, and this did not happen.” Lotfi added that the state should have hired international lawyers to handle the case. “Instead, millions were spent on committees that did not do anything.”

Lawyer Samir Sabry filed a lawsuit with the Public Funds Prosecution against the previous committees, which he accused of squandering public funds. “The total expenses of those committees has reached half a billion Egyptian pounds, and nothing was achieved,” Sabry wrote in the complaint. “If we go on like this, we will spend the amount we are working to get back.” Sabry also objected to the details of the expenses of such committees not being made public.

Moataz Salah al-Din, coordinator of the non-governmental Popular Initiative for the Repatriation of Smuggled Money, said relying on court rulings alone was a mistake. “Egypt should have also addressed relevant countries in the context of the U.N. convention against corruption,” he said, adding that some countries are usually more cooperative than others.

“Switzerland is the most likely to return the money, since Swiss public opinion and several NGOs there are supportive,” he said. “The United States has so far been the most intransigent, as it refused a request by the Egyptian government to freeze the accounts of 103 officials from the Mubarak regime.”

The changes through which Egypt has gone since the revolution, Salah al-Din added, made the success of such committees much harder. “The process was delayed by several regime changes, which also gave an impression to the involved countries that the Egyptian state is not stable enough to handle the smuggled-money file,” he said.

Wahid Abdel Maguid, researcher at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said the new committee would never be able to progress in the absence of court rulings. “The formation of the committee is only a bureaucratic step,” he said. “A judicial action is needed, but courts in Egypt are preoccupied with domestic cases.”

Abdel Ghaffar Shokr, deputy chairman of the National Council for Human Rights, agreed that the committee would be useless without court orders. “True, it was a positive step on the part of the president to revive the matter, but the judiciary has to be quick in issuing final verdicts that can be immediately put into force.”

Financial analyst Hani Mahmoud said banks would not return the money without a court ruling. “The country demanding the return of the money has to provide proof that this money was obtained illegally,” he said.

A report by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights said providing such proof was far-fetched, adding: “Technically, this money is not blood money since it is not obtained through illegal activities in the conventional sense like, for example, drug dealing or arms trade.”

Professor of international law Ahmed Refaat said he was optimistic about the new committee, adding that it was different from the others since it allowed reconciliation between the state and those accused of smuggling money abroad. “The accused will make restitution of the looted funds in exchange for dropping charges against them. Egyptian law allows reconciliation in several matters, including currency, tax and customs-related issues,” he said.

“The possibility of reconciliation will save time and huge amounts of money paid for international law firms and travel allowances for the members of the relevant committees.” Refaat said this might be the only realistic means of getting the money back, since traditional legal means might not work, especially with countries whose economy strongly relies on banking.

“If those countries restituted these funds, depositors’ confidence in these banks relying on foreign remittances would be shaken, which would lead to reluctance to deposit funds in these banks and cause the collapse of these countries’ banking systems.”

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