More than a year since president Hosni Mubarak was removed from power, the money he allegedly syphoned from Egypt during his 29-year rule remains beyond the reach of authorities attempting to recover it.
Mubarak amassed a fortune by carving up Egypt as if it were his own private estate. The dictator and his family are believed to have accumulated anywhere from 2 billion to 70 billion dollars in illicit wealth, much of it tied up in secret offshore accounts as well as lavish estates in London, Madrid, New York and across Egypt.
Authorities responsible for identifying and recovering these assets have dragged their feet, giving Mubarak's intermediaries more time to move the money to safe havens, says Amir Marghany, a member of the Egyptian Legal Group for Recovering the People’s Wealth (ELGRPW), an ad hoc group of lawyers and jurists seeking restitution of Mubarak’s ill-gotten gains.
"People are getting frustrated," says Marghany. "The process could take years, and there's no guarantee we'll ever see a penny."
Egypt's public prosecutor issued a travel ban and a freeze on the domestic assets of Mubarak and his family, as well as their close associates, after the dictator was toppled in February 2011. The foreign ministry ordered Egyptian embassies around the world to request that governments identify, freeze and return the assets of these individuals in accordance with the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, to which Egypt is a signatory.
Financial institutions in the European Union and Switzerland are working with a list of 19 names that includes the families of Mubarak and his closest associates. Canada’s foreign affairs department has adopted a more comprehensive list of over 140 individuals.
Although the Mubarak family is rumoured to own prime real estate in Manhattan and Beverly Hills, the American government has refused to issue any directives to locate or freeze the former dictator’s assets. U.S. Treasury officials claim Egyptian prosecutors have not provided the required documents.
According to one legal expert, Mubarak’s associates – and even the man himself – could walk into any U.S. bank and withdraw money.
Foreign governments may be reluctant to act against Mubarak and his cronies until judicial investigations can confirm the illicit origin of the assets. Secrecy jurisdictions, that is countries with opaque financial systems such as Liechtenstein and Cayman Islands, must also weigh the potential impact on their reputation.
"If a precedent is set and assets are revealed, these countries would no longer be considered safe havens for laundered money and their national economies would go belly up," Marghany told IPS.
What little progress has been made has been bogged down by legal procedures.
Switzerland was among the first countries to block suspected Mubarak family assets, enacting legislation passed just weeks before the dictator's ouster that allows its government to freeze and repatriate embezzled funds deposited in Swiss bank accounts and trusts by autocratic rulers.
"The objective of (the freeze) was to preserve assets that may have been illegally acquired and deposited in Switzerland and to prevent them from being transferred elsewhere," explains Rita Adam, deputy director of the Directorate of International Law.
Assem El-Gohary, head of Egypt's Illicit Gains Authority (IGA), announced last October that Mubarak and his family held assets worth 450 million dollars in now-frozen Swiss bank accounts. A lawyer for the family, however, denied the money had been embezzled.
Swiss government officials have said the assets would remain frozen until judicial authorities could determine whether they were acquired legally or had an illicit origin. But with no apparent timetable for a judicial ruling, the Egyptian public is growing impatient.
Meanwhile, acrimony is growing over the fate of Mubarak family assets frozen in the UK. The British Treasury's Asset Freezing Unit (AFU) froze the equivalent of 138 million dollars in Egyptian assets after Mubarak's ouster last year, yet has refused to provide Egyptian authorities with details on the nature and ownership of the frozen assets.
Treasury officials claim disclosing the information would breach national laws protecting bank client confidentiality.
Facing pressure at home to show results, Egyptian officials have taken the matter to court. The military-run government has filed a lawsuit in British administrative courts against the UK Treasury to disclose information needed to complete the legal procedures for repatriating assets.
Skeptics, however, claim the efforts are purely for public consumption. They accuse Egypt's ruling generals and the institutions they control of ostentatiously crusading against corruption while tacitly sheltering Mubarak and his assets.
Amr Adly, head of the Economic and Social Justice Unit at the Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), says state prosecutors responsible for retrieving Mubarak’s foreign assets appear to have buried the case.
"Recovering these assets is a very complex procedure… that depends foremost on a verdict passed by our judiciary," explains Adly. "Mubarak is on trial for several charges, including ordering the killing of protesters, selling gas to Israel, and financial crimes related to estates in Egypt."
Yet none of the charges involve the former dictator’s overseas assets, he notes.
This article was originally published by IPS News.