Egypt says U.S. dragging its feet on freezing Mubarak assets

March 30, 2011

More than a month after the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the United States has yet to respond to a request by Cairo to freeze his assets, Egyptian officials say.

In a country where a politically emancipated public is eager to hold the former authoritarian government to account, Washington’s delay is deepening already negative feelings toward the United States. Egyptian activists point to the quickness with which U.S. officials moved to freeze the assets of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi.

U.S. officials say they are still reviewing the request by Egypt’s prosecutor general, but they add privately that the matter is more complicated than a simple freezing of funds.

U.S. officials say that in Libya’s case, they were able to freeze $32 billion in a matter of days because they were taking action against an entire country, as well as Gaddafi, and that much of the money that Treasury officials froze was part of Libya’s sovereign wealth fund. The rationale — stemming funding for an autocrat firing on his own people — was also much clearer.

But in the case of Mubarak — an individual rather than a state power, and now a former president — the situation is murkier, officials say.

Many Egyptians are convinced that Mubarak and his top officials took in millions through kickbacks and corruption during his three-decade rule. Estimates in Egyptian media have ranged from $1 billion to $70 billion. But where that money may be is not known, and experts say finding such assets can be difficult and time-consuming because they are often hidden in shell companies.

“There are unrealistically high expectations in Egypt about the Mubarak money,” said Michele Dunne, a Middle East expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “As an American, it’s one of the first things Egyptians bring up in conversation with you. They say, ‘You in the West are on trial here.’ There are suspicions that we’re just sitting on top of millions for Mubarak.”

In Cairo, Egypt’s newly appointed justice minister talked this week about the importance of recovering such assets.

“We must collect evidence that these monies were collected illegally so that foreign countries agree to freeze these accounts,” Mohamed Abdel Aziz el-Gendy told reporters. He added that Egypt had sent experts abroad to track down the money and start legal procedures.

The U.S. Treasury said it sent notices to banks in February after Mubarak’s ouster to remind them of federal laws that require monitoring for evidence or suspicion of corruption, bribery or other illegal payments. The notice said banks must “apply enhanced scrutiny for private banking accounts held by or on behalf of senior foreign political figures.”

Since then, however, Treasury officials have declined to say whether they have received any such reports of suspicion.

A U.S. government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing, said the Justice Department has been working with the Egyptian government to determine whether any U.S. accounts or assets are the ill-gotten proceeds of Mubarak or his family. A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment.

The Egyptian government has found progress slow in other countries as well. Until last week, the European Union had not taken action to seize assets tied to Mubarak. When it did, there was no announcement of what may have been seized. Switzerland, in contrast, moved to freeze Mubarak’s assets even before Egyptian officials requested such action.

Activists say the ongoing efforts to recover such money could have ramifications on Egypt’s transitional government.

“There are big question marks over the process, including the prosecutor leading the search for assets,” said Hossam el-Hamalawy, a prominent Egyptian journalist and labor activist. “As many people will tell you, this guy was the same prosecutor who worked for Mubarak. Everyone is just waiting to see whether they actually get any of the money back.”

Staff writer Michael Birnbaum in Cairo contributed to this report.

William Wan is The Post’s China correspondent based in Beijing. He served previously as a religion reporter and diplomatic correspondent.
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