Egyptians took the streets in January 2011 to protest against policies of former president Hosni Mubarak. They resented him and his family over their inflated wealth and widespread corruption.
After Mubarak resigned on 11 February that year, revolutionaries wanted to see him held accountable for his regime’s crimes over 30 years and the killing of protesters.
While Mubarak and his men walked free of these charges, revolutionaries still rejoiced when a court convicted him and his sons of corruption, giving them prison terms in a case of embezzling state funds intended to renovate presidential palaces.
After the revolution, a new goal appeared: restoring that money, with the illusion of distributing that money to the people, plus some calculating each person’s share in the wealth estimated at the time to be between $40 to $70bn.
Exaggerated or not, in other estimates that fortune was established at $700bn, worth of cash, gold and other state-owned valuables, according to a document reported by The Washington Post in 2011.
Activists called him a thief, as dozens if international media reports discussed how the former president accumulated his fortune by encouraging corruption, which left the people in poverty and despair.
In one report by Deutsche Welle in February 2011, experts tried to trace the wealth of Mubarak, his wife Suzanne and his sons Alaa and Gamal. They argued that most of the wealth was obtained through illegal means such as cheap selling of state-owned lands, therefore there was little official records on that.
The report presented two main ideas. The first was that most of the funds were abroad, most famously Swiss banks. The second was that an official request by the Egyptian government, when he was no longer in power, would be the only way for banks to freeze the accounts of Mubarak and his family.
In the following seven years, at least five committees were formed to restore Mubarak funds from abroad but with no results. They included one formed in 2011 by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, one under the rule of Islamist ex-president Mohamed Morsi, and one by former Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb in 2014. President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi formed a new committee in 2015, headed by the Egyptian Prosecutor-General.
Following the issue between 2013 and 2016, Al-Ahram Weekly’s Hayat Hussein predicted that hopes of recovering assets smuggled out of Egypt were dim. According to Hussein, these hopes “received a further blow” when the Swiss Attorney-General visited Egypt in 2016, and insisted that Egyptian courts would have to prove the money stashed in Swiss banks was obtained illegally in order to move forward with its restitution.
EU Court upholds freeze on Mubarak assets
On Thursday, the General Court of the European Union (EU) upheld a 2011 decision by the Council of the EU to freeze the assets of the Mubarak family.
“That decision, which was renewed in the years following 2011, concerns, inter alia, Ms Suzanne Saleh Thabet, the wife of the former Egyptian President Mr Muhammad Hosni Mubarak, their sons, and their sons’ wives, on the ground that they are subject to judicial proceedings initiated by the Egyptian authorities for misappropriation of State funds,” the court said in a statement.
The court further responded to challenges presented by the concerned individuals, in which they asked for the annulment of the acts renewing the freezing of their assets, questioning their legal basis.
Rejecting their claims, the court argued the “restrictive measures must, in principle, be maintained until the conclusion of the judicial proceedings in Egypt.” It added that it found no reason to believe the individuals’ rights were compromised by Egypt’s political and judicial systems and therefore will continue to cooperate with Egyptian authorities.
On 21 March 2011, the council issued its decision, citing “readiness to support the peaceful and orderly transition to a civilian and democratic government in Egypt, based on the rule of law, with full respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and to support efforts to create an economy which enhances social cohesion and promotes growth.”
Swiss authorities: from cooperation to abandonment
Since 2011, Swiss authorities froze an estimated CHF 650m ($664m) smuggled out of Egypt during Mubarak’s era to Switzerland, and began investigations into the funds of a dozen people including Mubarak.
In 2016, Swiss Attorney-General Michael Lauber visited Egypt to examine the latest developments in ongoing criminal proceedings. By then, about CHF 180m had been unblocked since 2011.
While six out of 13 people were still being investigated by Swiss authorities for money laundering or supporting a criminal organisation with frozen assets amounting to nearly $418m, the Swiss government was to re-examine the extension of the freeze the following year.
In August 2017, Swiss authorities informed the Egyptian Prosecutor General that it was ceasing mutual legal efforts over the charges for lack of results.
In a statement on October 2017, the independent Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights said, “despite the opening of criminal investigations in Switzerland and Egypt, it appears that the confiscation of this money is increasingly unlikely.”
Not only Mubarak: how the Egyptian state dealt with stolen funds
Money and assets belonging to Mubarak, his family, grandsons and extended family were not the only country’s stolen funds. More than a dozen Mubarak-era ministers and businessmen were brought to trial after the revolution and their assets were frozen.
The EU Council’s decision to freeze assets in overseas territories included a list of 18 people besides Mubarak. His wife, sons and their wives were among them. There were also ministers, their wives and children.
A 2012 article published by the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt on its website documented the situation back then: “After a year and a half of investigation, the government has identified some $10bn in overseas assets held by 45 families with ties to Mubarak, says Ahmed Saad, a senior counsellor with Egypt’s Illicit Gains Authority,” the article read.
It added that no money has been repatriated, and highlighted public discontent over the “slow rate of return” by those who seek justice, but are also “looking to the funds as a quick salve for Egypt’s battered economy.”
But despite court cases and collected documents, revelations on corruption means could still not fully expose the amounts of stolen funds.
The fortunes of business tycoons were subject of extensive investigations too, including fugitive Salah Salem and Ahmed Ezz, among others, who have sought to clear their names and obtain legal immunity through an Egyptian adopted reconciliation law in 2015, by which they could return a sum of money to the state and not be prosecuted for corruption in return.
In 2016, a judicial source announced that the Egypt’s government has officially concluded a reconciliation deal with Salem to drop charges against him in exchange for the business mogul giving up EGP 5.3bn (approx. $596.5m). This figure accounts for 75% of his assets inside and outside Egypt, according to state-owned website Ahram online.
In March this year, Prosecutor-General Nabil Sadek declared that Ezz would pay LE 1.7bn, of which LE 600,000m were already recovered from abroad, as part of a reconciliation deal.