Arabs seek return of tyrants' treasure

Feb. 21, 2011 at 2:08 PM
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CAIRO, Feb. 21 (UPI) -- Increasingly, a key target of the regime-wrecking avalanche of anger sweeping the Arab world is recovering the fortunes amassed by dictators, their families and business cronies who plundered billions of dollars of state assets during their decades in power.

The one-time-hairdresser wife of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia's president who was deposed Jan. 14, fled into exile to Saudi Arabia allegedly snatching 1.5 tons of gold worth about $60 million from the central bank in Tunis.

Ben Ali was despised for ruling his North African country with an iron grip for 23 years, ruthlessly crushing his opponents. But the rapacious greed of his wife Leila's family, the Trabelsis, made him and them their countrymen's principal hate figures.

In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak had barely stepped down Feb. 11 as his nation's fourth president in the face of 18 days of street protests than the Swiss government froze all the assets held in the country's banks by him, his wife Suzanne, their two sons and their wives and key political allies.

In this case, the new regime in Cairo hadn't even got around to asking the Swiss to act. That probably had a lot of do with the Switzerland seeking to shed its reputation as the favorite repository of dictators' ill-gotten gains.

The days when notorious tyrants such as Sese Seko Mobutu of the Congo, Gen. Suharto of Indonesia, Papa Doc Duvalier of Haiti, Idi Amin of Uganda and the deranged Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic who robbed their people blind can flee with their loot seem to be coming to an end.

Two days after Mubarak's downfall, Egypt's state prosecutors launched corruption investigations against three former government ministers and a steel magnate who was a member of Parliament for the ruling National Democratic Party.

The Mubarak family's fortune has been estimated at $40 billion-$70 billion, most of it held in British and Swiss banks or tied up in real estate in London, New York, Los Angeles and around the Egyptian Red Sea coast resort of Sharm el-Sheik.

Amaney Jamal, a political science professor at Princeton University, said that estimate is consistent with the estimated wealth of most petroleum princes in the Persian Gulf monarchies.

Britain's Guardian newspaper quoted her as saying: "There was a lot of corruption in this regime and stifling of public resources for personal gain.

"This is the pattern of other Middle Eastern dictators so their wealth will not be taken during a transition. These leaders plan on this."

Mubarak's sons, Gamal and Alaa, were both billionaires. They were key figures in the business elite that grew around Mubarak's presidency after he succeeded the assassinated Anwar Sadat in October 1981.

Gamal, the youngest at 47, is widely reviled because he was being groomed to take over the presidency. Much of his wealth stemmed from his connections with EFG-Hermes, Egypt's largest private investment bank.

No figure has been put on the fortune held by Ben Ali and the Trabelsis but the corruption surrounding Leila Ben Ali, the fifth of 11 children of a fruit vendor who married him in 1992, and her mafia-like clan was seen as a key factor behind the Tunisian uprising.

The French daily Le Monde reported that when the clamor for Ben Ali's downfall was peaking, Leila ordered the governor of the central bank to hand over gold ingots worth $59 million.

He refused, until Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali himself intervened, the newspaper said.

Other ruling families in the Arab world, such as Moammar Gadhafi of Libya and his sons; Queen Rania, wife of King Abdullah II of Jordan, and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, are being accused of corruption and plundering state assets.

Queen Rania is being targeted amid an attack of unprecedented intensity on the country's once-sacrosanct royal family, with the ultimate aim of bringing down the Hashemite monarchy established by the British after World War I.

In an unprecedented move Feb. 5, 36 leaders of the main Bedouin tribes, long the bedrock of support for the Hashemite throne, published an open letter addressed to Abdullah accusing his wife of corruption.

Jordan, it said, "will sooner or later face the flood of Tunisia and Egypt due to the suppression of freedoms and looting of public funds."

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