By Steve Hendrix and James V. Grimaldi
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 1, 2011; A10
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."
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.
Estimates of Mubarak's wealth have ranged from $1 billion to $70 billion, and Smith said most are likely wild guesses.
Mubarak is not the first member of his ruling clique to face investigation by the interim government. Several former ministers, party leaders and businessmen close to Mubarak have been jailed in the past two weeks on charges that include money laundering and profiteering.
But neither those arrests nor the fledgling investigation into Mubarak has been enough to satisfy protesters, who have remained massed in central Cairo by the hundreds. Even as students returned to class and the Egyptian stock exchange was slated to open Tuesday, activists have called for faster changes. The list of demands they have been pressing includes the immediate resignation of Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, a former Mubarak ally, the release of political prisoners and the arrest of those who opened fire on protesters early in the revolt.
On Monday, one of the leading protest groups threatened to cut off negotiations with the military council running the interim government unless it agreed to a timetable for protesters' key demands.
After a five-hour meeting with the council over the weekend, the Coalition for Revolution Youth gave officials two days to set a schedule or face the return of huge crowds in the streets, according to a posting on its Facebook page.
Grimaldi reported from Washington.