Restitution deals a Pyrrhic victory for Egypt


First, Egyptian prosecutors agree to settle with Mubarak  and former Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif,  with the state accepting cash compensation in exchange for settling charges relating to the "Ahram gifts" case.  (Officials were accused of accepting luxury gifts, bought with public funds, from Al Ahram newspapers.) Now, businessman and Mubarak crony Hussein Salem is proposing that corruption charges be dropped against him, in exchange for handing over 50 percent of his properties in Spain and abroad.

All of this is possible under a Mubarak-era law that grants officials accused of corruption amnesty in exchange for returning what they stole. Basically, the government treats these profiteers like a mother might treat a child who got caught stealing a pack of bubblegum from the store: making them apologize to the manager and return what they stole.

(Although one assumes a strict parent would at least give a stern lecture and take away some privileges from the child. As far as I know, beyond returning property, none of these deals has involved so much as a slap on the wrist.)

To me, this seems absurd, because these people are not just misguided kids who can undo the effects of their crimes simply by putting back what they stole. First of all, any property or funds acquired  have a knock-on effect for the asset holder—assets appreciate, interest payments go to misappropriators instead of rightful owners, companies or individuals with more assets find it easier to secure credit or investors. I'm not seeing these sorts of secondary benefits factored into restitution deals. Second, let's not forget that corruption does real damage to Egypt. The public money that was stolen should've gone to things like education, healthcare, or infrastructure—real people were hurt in real ways when it didn't. And let's not forget lost opportunity:  other investors, who might have had business ideas that would've created decent jobs and helped the economy, got shut out in favor of cronies. Returning a land deed is not going to fairly compensate the Egyptian people for those losses.

I can understand the desire for quick wins in a time of economic crisis, but these repatriation deals seem like hollow victories. First, because in many cases, what's being returned is land and property. (At least that is my understanding based on an interview with the Illicit Gains Authority's Ahmed Saad in November) That's great and all, but getting back, say, LE9 billion worth of state land does not translate into a LE9 billion bump for the treasury.

Furthermore, we need to remember that Egypt still has not completed its investigations into stolen assets.  Take Hussein Salem. We don't actually know how much money he stole, or where he's hiding it all. Yet prosecutors are supposed to take the word of a known thief and liar about what would constitute 50 percent of his own assets? And in the process abandon investigations that might actually discover the real figure, and help Egypt eventually recover 100 percent of what he stole? I understand well that asset recovery investigations are lengthy, complex processes that currently seem beyond Egypt's institutional capacity. That still doesn't mean it makes sense to scupper a longterm goal for a short-term PR boost.

Worse, I don't see how these deals to anything to prevent corruption in the future.

Think about it. Deals like these presents corruption as a gamble with virtually no risks: if you get away with it, you profit hugely; if you get caught, you're not really any worse off than you were before. It doesn't take a crack bookie to figure out that those odds are hardly a disincentive to criminal behavior in the future.