Mubarak ally watches Egypt from uncertain exile

By Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 3, 2011; 12:03 AM

IN DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES A month ago, Rachid Mohamed Rachid was one of Egypt's most powerful politicians. As minister of trade and industry, he circled the globe courting investors, kept a direct line to then-President Hosni Mubarak and was one of the country's most respected figures abroad.

Today, the businessman-turned-politician sits in uncertain exile in a luxury apartment in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, having fled Egypt on a chartered private jet as Mubarak's regime crumbled. He is wanted on corruption charges back home and says he is as anxious about his future as he is about Egypt's.

"If I go back now, I'll just be thrown in prison," Rachid, dressed in a checkered blazer and black Nike sneakers, said in an interview as he fielded worried calls from associates. "It's like being in a nightmare."

Rachid, 55, fled Egypt on Feb. 1, 10 days before Mubarak was forced from power. He and other cabinet members had resigned three days earlier at Mubarak's request, as the president sought to stave off pressure from protesters.

After his departure, Rachid's assets in Egypt were ordered frozen, and he was barred - after the fact - from leaving the country. Some of those arrested in Egypt in recent days have been former colleagues, including the minister of housing and the head of the industrial development authority. They were taken to court in white prison uniforms last week in a vehicle that was mobbed by protesters, underscoring the anger many in Egypt feel toward the country's rich.

With his wife and two children abroad, Rachid said, he left primarily for family reasons, at a time when security was collapsing in Cairo. He said he had been helped by Omar Suleiman, Egypt's longtime intelligence chief, who ensured that Rachid's chartered jet was able to leave Cairo and fly first to the coastal city of Alexandria, to pick up a daughter, and then on to Dubai. He got out just before several of Egypt's top business figures and government officials were rounded up on corruption allegations.

"They were panicking," Rachid said of his family, including his wife and a daughter in the United States and another daughter who was in Dubai. "Everybody was panicking because of the security situation."

Rachid's departure and the recent arrests of top businessmen in some ways represent a victory for Egyptian protesters, who sought to topple Mubarak and punish those who profited under his rule. But some experts and former U.S. officials say the purging of professional elites might threaten Egypt's financial recovery and make the transition to democracy even harder.

Before being named trade minister in 2004, Rachid headed Middle East operations for the global firm Unilever. He had studied in management programs at Harvard, Stanford and MIT.

On Jan. 25, when protesters first gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square, Rachid was in Rome, meeting with Italian officials, while en route to the Davos World Economic Forum in Switzerland. He said that on the advice of friends, he skipped Davos and returned to Egypt, rather than be put in the position of "standing in the snow, being the spokesperson for the government."

Some former and current U.S. officials dismiss the corruption allegations against him, a position shared by some Egyptian business leaders. Some say he is the type of leader Egypt will need as it carves a new path.

"It is my impression that Minister Rachid is widely perceived as a man of integrity," said Hala El Barkouky, an Egyptian banker and investment consultant. She said she feared that intense media coverage of the arrest and investigations of top business leaders could kindle "a backlash against the private sector," which accounts for more than two-thirds of the Egyptian economy.

Rachid said the arrests of former colleagues have devastated him. The ex-housing minister, Ahmed Maghrabi, is one of the "most decent people in the Middle East," he said. Amr Mohamed Assal, who headed the Industrial Development Authority, "would never sign a document unless there were six legal advisers," he said.

Rachid said he never showed favoritism to people such as Ahmed Ezz, a business magnate whose licensing of a steel mill on Rachid's watch is one of the deals being investigated by prosecutors.

Rachid said that average Egyptians did not benefit enough from the economic reforms he helped engineer and that the government he served did not do enough to open up the country's politics. The results didn't come fast enough for Egypt's masses, many of whom live on less than $2 a day.

But he rattles off the economic successes of his tenure, including the creation of 4 million jobs in 51/2 years, trade agreements with Turkey, Brazil and Argentina, hundreds of new factories, and a sharp increase in exports.

"The reality, at the end of the day, is, you had a growing economy. Nobody can debate this," Rachid said. "Now, if you watch Egyptian television, if you listen to Egyptian officials, they say it never existed. But I can tell you, when the government left, our finances were in good shape."

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