Looking At Mubarak's Assets

Host Melissa Block speaks with New York Times reporter David Rohde about the freezing of ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak's assets.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Earlier this week, the Egyptian government froze the assets of the ousted president. Switzerland also has frozen tens of millions of dollars tied to Mubarak and his aides in Swiss bank accounts. And numbers are swirling of just how much Mubarak money might be out there.

New York Times reporter David Rohde has been trying to figure that out.

And, David, you do hear this number given for the Mubarak family fortune: $70 billion. Do you think that's true?

Mr. DAVID ROHDE (Reporter, The New York Times): Yes, seven-zero billion. That is widely seen as not correct. If that were true, Hosni Mubarak would be the richest man in the world. Bill Gates, the official richest man in the world, you know, is estimated to have $54 billion. But that is the number that's out there, and it's cited by members of the Egyptian public, and they are enraged. They think he has that much money. And I think tracking this money is going to be one of the biggest political issues in Egypt.

This new government is dominated by the military, and people fear that they're going to protect Mubarak, you know, a former air force commander, and let him hide his money.

BLOCK: Well, if not $70 billion, what do you think is more accurate?

Mr. ROHDE: U.S. officials say it's more like two to $3 billion, which is still a staggering amount for a country that poor. This is one example of how it remains very hard to find the assets of these autocrats. It's easy for them to hide them in different countries.

One thing that has changed is, you know, you mentioned Switzerland. Switzerland has been more aggressive than any country in trying to track these assets. They were even freezing and searching for Mubarak's assets before the new Egyptian government requested it. The U.S. isn't that bold, nor is the U.K. And there's been some criticism that the U.S. and U.K. are moving too slowly.

BLOCK: Well, when we talk about this money that may be, if you say in the order of two or $3 billion, we're not talking just about Hosni Mubarak. We're talking about his wife, his two sons - Alaa and Gamal. Where was that money from? How did the Mubarak family make the fortune that it did?

Mr. ROHDE: There's various theories, and no one really knows. But there's a lot of suspicion regarding Gamal Mubarak, his son. Egypt privatized its economy in the 1990s, and there's lots of anecdotal reports of Gamal Mubarak helping out friends of his.

There were five ministers that even the military government has targeted. And one of them is Ahmed Ezz. He was the - he's not - he wasn't a minister, but he was a steel magnate and an official in the Mubarak party.

And there's a sense that that inner circle got astoundingly rich during this privatization period, that they were skimming money off of the top of these deals, selling land at very low prices and buying it and then making enormous amounts.

So it's a mix, and I think still no one knows. But there's no question that they somehow - the money was made by this ruling elite that was very close to the Mubaraks, and there's tremendous public anger.

BLOCK: Was the Mubarak family known for gilded excess? In other words, the fancy palaces, the ostentatious lifestyle that would be right out there, you know, in the public eye?

Mr. ROHDE: No. And I've had one person say to me, you know, we're not talking about Saddam Hussein and Uday Hussein here, that the Mubaraks, you know, didn't have tigers as pets. Hosni Mubarak himself lived a very simple life. He would rarely travel outside of Egypt. He would go on holiday to Sharm el-Sheikh where he is now in this villa. It was nowhere near sort of the money that was being showed off in Tunisia by the leaders there.

Gamal did, I think, show off money a little bit more. And he was the focus of much more public anger and much more suspicions of corruption. There was an unconfirmed report about an argument between the two sons, Gamal and Alaa, where Alaa was blaming Gamal, saying: You ruined the image of our father because of your friends, these industrialists, because of these deals you cut. But again, these are all unreported things. But it's, you know, they are not at the standards of some of the most excessive autocrats that we've seen over the years.

BLOCK: Though, if you're an Egyptian living on $2 a day, it all looks pretty ostentatious.

Mr. ROHDE: Yes. And, you know, one big part of the Egyptian economy has been American aid. Since the Camp David Peace Accords, Egypt has received roughly $50 billion in military aid and roughly $28 billion in development aid through USAID. And there's a lot of questions about where that money went. We've asked American officials about that. They say it was very closely tracked, and that, you know, it wasn't used improperly. But, you know, again, that's hard to know.

A key moment - and this is - you know, we've talked to people that investigated the Marcos regime and their money. There's this kind of key moment when a government falls, when documents are unearthed. You know, there are, you know, files that show bank accounts. And then, there are insiders who start talking.

That hasn't happened yet in Egypt because there's a sense that the army is still protecting, you know, large parts of the Mubarak regime, and people aren't really talking yet. And I think if things don't sort of open up there more, it's going to be very difficult to trace this money.

BLOCK: That the moment will have passed. They'll have missed their opportunity, basically.

Mr. ROHDE: Yes. I mean, there were literally files found, apparently, when Marcos fell that gave all these details of some of the billions he had hidden around the world. And they're sort of, you know, waiting for that moment in Egypt.

BLOCK: David Rohde of The New York Times, thanks so much.

Mr. ROHDE: Thank you.

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