Egypt bans Mubarak from travel, freezes assets

Motivated by recent shows of political strength by neighbors in Egypt, people in the Middle East and North Africa are taking to the streets of many cities to rally for change.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, February 28, 2011; 8:35 PM

CAIRO - Egypt's top prosecutor on Monday barred former president Hosni Mubarak and his family from leaving the country and seized control of Mubarak's assets as the new government moved ahead with an investigation into charges of corruption.

Opponents accuse Mubarak, who fled Cairo more than two weeks ago, of diverting millions of dollars from official coffers.

The office of prosecutor Abdel Meguid Mahmoud did not disclose details of the investigation involving the family. But it said the travel ban applied to Mubarak; his wife, Suzanne; his two sons; and their wives.

The pro-government newspaper Al-Ahram, citing military sources, reported on its Web site Monday that the former president's son Gamal Mubarak had been stopped by the military Sunday when he tried to leave the country.

News of the sanctions, and the possibility that they could lead to a formal prosecution, gave a boost to activists who had grown frustrated with what they see as the slow pace of reforms since Mubarak's fall. Although the delay may have allowed the former ruling family time to conceal some of its wealth, an official sanction of any kind against the man who dominated the government for three decades was welcome news, activists said.

"It's important, even just symbolically," said Hala Mustafa, editor of Democracy Review, an Egyptian quarterly. "It's hard to imagine the government would ask Interpol to go and find him if he left, but at least it shows they understand what happened here was a real revolution. Now they need to go further."

In Cairo's Tahrir Square, the center of the uprising that forced Mubarak from office, the development was greeted as a victory, even if an incremental one.

"We pressured the government to do this, and the government responded," said Ahmed Muhammed Zayed, who had been sleeping under a suspended blanket in the square for two nights. "That is why we need to pressure them some more. This is a drop in the ocean."

Experts in the field said tracking down Mubarak's millions is not as easy as simply freezing his assets or those of his family. Just finding the assets can be time-consuming because they probably are hidden in shell companies and entities incorporated in countries known as tax havens or secrecy jurisdictions, experts said.

After Mubarak was forced out, Switzerland sent notices to banks with a list of Mubarak family names and asked that their assets be seized. But specialists said it is likely that many, if not most, accounts are not in the family name.

"It isn't sitting all in one account where they can go and freeze it," said Jack D. Smith, a former U.S. banking regulator who is now a law professor at George Washington University. "If you don't get it quickly, stuff that's not frozen disappears. You have to ask the banks to help you, but it can be done. I'll bet you a lot of banks are still looking."

The legal process of returning the assets to Egypt could take years, Smith said. Cases involving other leaders have taken longer than a decade.

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