The Fallen Pharaoh

Egypt's Kifaya Movement has raised the ante in its opposition to President Mubarak's regime by issuing a massive report that dares to name names and detail corruption among the country's leaders. Barry Rubin reports

Egypt's Kifaya Movement has raised the ante in its opposition to President Hosni Mubarak's regime by issuing a massive report that dares to name names and detail corruption among the country's leaders. Barry Rubin reports

Egypt's President Husni Mubrarak (photo: AP)
By issuing a detailed corruption report and daring to name Mubarak and his family as the prime culprits, Kifaya is challenging the regime head-on

​​Kifaya's action is especially bold in the midst of a government crackdown to prepare the way for the succession of Mubarak's son, Gamal. For example, a recent law mandates punishment for anyone who spreads rumors that Gamal is to be the next president.

Corruption in Egypt, as in other Arab states, is so extensive as to undermine the possibility of economic advancement, higher living standards, a free media, independent courts, and democracy. Egypt's political elite, fearful of critical media coverage, defeat in fair elections, and even imprisonment, prefer the existing regime and oppose any significant reform.

This is a key theme of the report, entitled Corruption in Egypt: A Black Cloud That Never Passes. As long as the system is corrupted from above, and as long as the only way common people can deal with the government is through bribery, says the report, inefficiency will reign and people will cheat each other. The only way to break this vicious circle is to replace the regime.

At the same time, as was seen in Yasir Arafat's Palestine Authority, a corrupt regime encourages people to turn to radical Islamists, who work hard to present themselves as honest. If the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power in Egypt one day, Kifaya's report will explain a lot about how it happened.

"Fasadistan" – the land of corruption

The report begins by joking that Egypt's name should be changed to "Fasadistan," the land of corruption. It documents cases relating to housing, business, health, transportation, trade, banks, drugs, agriculture, politics, culture, and the media. One chapter covers how the security forces control appointments to all key jobs, including in schools and universities.

But the most dramatic part of the book concerns Mubarak himself. An anecdote in the report, which rings true, has Mubarak meeting with officers of the Third Army two years ago. Some of the younger officers complained about corruption.

Mubarak apparently surprised them by saying that he knew that many leading people in the country were thieves, but that he believed they had stolen enough to keep them happy. He was afraid, he explained, that if he appointed new people they would start over in their depredations, putting a much heavier burden on Egypt.

According to the report, however, Mubarak; his wife, Susan; and his two sons, Gamal and Alaa, are far from being mere bystanders. When Mubarak became president in 1981, parliament granted him the right to control all military contracts without legislative oversight. In effect, the report states, he has a monopoly on military spending and imports, apparently a rich source of kickbacks each time he approves a deal.

Similarly, Susan Mubarak is the head of as many as 100 charities that often exist only on paper. The report charges that as much as $5 million might go to one of these institutions in a year, but that a large portion is then siphoned off to her secret foreign bank accounts.

Ironically, Susan Mubarak, says the report, urged the passage of a 1992 law that permitted Egyptian non-governmental organizations to receive foreign funds – a provision used by some opposition groups – in order to provide channels for the NGO's she runs. The president's son Gamal also has his own charities that provide him with money, claims Kifaya, including the famous al-Mustaqbal organization.

Profit-making partnerships and illegal financial transactions

Mubarak's two sons are said by the report to receive profit-making partnerships – without making any investment – in a large number of companies, including Phillip Morris, Skoda Auto, Movenpick, Vodafone, McDonalds, and many others. They can also, it adds, obtain unsecured bank loans for themselves and their friends.

The report maintains that these funds are often used to participate in illegal financial transactions, arms' dealing, and money laundering. The sons' interests allegedly also include forays into drug smuggling and illegal exports of archaeological treasures – Egypt's cultural heritage – in partnership with Culture Minister Faruq Husni, who is supposed to safeguard them. Anyone who stands in their way, according to the report, can be thrown into prison on false charges of drug dealing.

Other cabinet ministers are no better, Kifaya claims. Boutros Ghali, nephew of the former UN Secretary-General, Interior Minister Habib Al-Adli, and such powerful figures as Ibrahim Suleiman and Safwat Sharif are engaged in similar deals, sometimes in partnership with Mubarak's sons.

In short, the report says, officials can do what they like, unbound by law or transparency. By using the "emergency law," which has restricted freedom since 1981, together with censorship and rigged elections, Egypt's government treats its citizens like serfs.

Meanwhile, massive corruption is devastating Egypt's economy, with growth falling by half in the last two years, accompanied by rising unemployment, higher inflation, and currency depreciation. Foreign investment is also declining, and local production is paralyzed, necessitating expensive imports. The discontent fueled by these failures is a major potential cause of unrest.

By issuing such a detailed report and daring to name Mubarak and his family as the prime culprits, Kifaya is challenging the regime head-on. The need for reform, it argues, is not based merely on a desire for better government or abstract rights, but is necessary to save a country that is being strangled. The regime may respond by trying to tighten the noose.

Barry Rubin

© Project Syndicate 2006

Barry Rubin is director of the GLORIA Center at Israel's Interdisciplinary University and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA). His latest book is The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East.

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