By Sudarsan Raghavan
Sunday, February 13, 2011; A15
CAIRO - As Egyptians entered a new era Saturday, they were unanimous in one sentiment: To move forward, the country must recover the substantial assets that Hosni Mubarak, their deposed president, and his cronies allegedly pocketed during nearly three decades in power.
"He stole our money," said Mohammed Tarik, 20, a medical student who wore a white smock that read "Victory for Egypt." "If the next president can get back the money, he will show he's not like the old president. It would restore Egypt's dignity and bring respect for the government."
The sentiments among the tens of thousands who swarmed into Tahrir Square on Saturday to celebrate their triumph highlighted how much Mubarak's fate will determine the future of their revolution and the ability to heal wounds still festering from decades of corruption and autocratic rule.
Some demonstrators declared that Mubarak should face a trial and then be thrown in prison. Others said they preferred to let him live quietly in Egypt. The most extreme said they wanted him dead.
The wealth of Mubarak, his family and his political allies has long been a source of resentment in a nation with high unemployment, immense poverty, rising prices and a collective perception that only those with strong ties to Mubarak and his ruling party could succeed financially. Egyptian opposition leaders are vowing to push for a full investigation into Mubarak's financial dealings.
Among those interviewed Saturday, tracking down the wealth of Mubarak and his associates and returning it to Egypt is as much a priority as seeing a civilian democratic government replace the current council of military leaders tapped to rule the country.
"If we can get back some of the billions stolen, I will be satisfied with our revolution," said Mohammed Fattouh, 29, a tourism operator.
While Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko, the Philippines' Ferdinand Marcos and, most recently, Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, fled into exile, making it difficult to recover their ill-gotten wealth, Mubarak has, for now at least, vowed to remain on Egyptian soil, allowing a unique opportunity to redress the past, many Egyptians said in interviews.
Ahmed Saif, 26, a bank employee, said Mubarak had contributed a lot to building Egypt into a modern nation and a regional power, despite the repression and resentment he spawned. "Now he's an old man. He should remain here," Saif said.
He paused, and provided another reason: "If he leaves the country, we'll never get our money back."
Few know Mubarak's worth. Some rumors, spreading on the Internet, say his family fortune is between $40 billion and $70 billion. Middle East analysts and news reports in the Arabic media say Mubarak and his family kept most of their wealth in real estate stretching from Egypt's Red Sea coast to London, Los Angeles and New York, and in Swiss and offshore bank accounts.
On Friday, the Swiss government froze accounts held by Mubarak, his family and several prominent Egyptians, including some former government ministers.
Protesters recently railed against the regime outside an opulent house owned by Mubarak's son Gamal in London's Belgravia neighborhood, where properties cost as much as $20 million.
The Mubaraks, say analysts, probably profited from numerous business deals struck between the government and foreign investors and companies while he was president, or perhaps dating to when he was a senior military official. But Mubarak has been such a fixture in Egypt's affairs for several generations that it's difficult to determine what he gained through the state and what he gained privately.
Illicit financial activities and government graft siphon more than $6 billion from Egypt's coffers per year, according to Karly Curcio, an economist with Global Financial Integrity, a nonprofit organization that tracks illicit financial flows. Between 2000 and 2008, Egypt lost $57.2 billion. Many Egyptians earn about $2 a day.
"Look how poor they are," said Nisreen Ashraf, 22, clutching a national flag and pointing at a cluster of impoverished people sitting on dirty blankets. "There are so many poor. And he has $70 billion? Why? Why?"
Ashraf said she had known no other leader than Mubarak, and like many young people interviewed, she still felt a sense of reverence for him. "He was like my father. I love him, but I don't want him back."
"I want all the money he took [to be] taken from him," Ashraf said. "I want him to feel how Egyptian people feel."