Ex-ministers face trial
Three former cabinet ministers facing corruption charges claim they were simply following orders from the president's office, reports Gamal Essam El-Din
Investigations into the wealth -- amassed under ousted president Hosni Mubarak -- of several businessmen and former state officials illustrate the way in which corruption operated at the highest levels of government and commerce.
Former minister of housing Ahmed El-Maghrabi, former minister of tourism Zoheir Garana and former minister of agriculture Amin Abaza are currently facing charges of selling state-owned land at knockdown prices to business tycoons close to Mubarak's younger son Gamal.
Abaza has been accused of facilitating the sale of 11,000 feddans in Sinai to Amr Mansi, the son of the ruling National Democratic Party's (NDP) secretary for farming affairs. Strangely, the land did not belong to the Ministry of Agriculture. According to the prosecution "not only was Abaza aware that the land belonged to the army but he approved Mansi selling 8,000 feddans to foreign investors for LE350 million even though the law clearly states that foreigners cannot hold land tenure in the Sinai peninsula."
Abaza is also facing charges of selling more than 500 feddans on the Cairo-Ismailia road to Mohamed Abul-Enein, a construction magnate and a former member of the NDP's secretariat- general. "Abul-Enein," say prosecutors, "acquired the land for agricultural reclamation but used it instead to build up market housing communities."
Among the charges levelled at El-Maghrabi is the allocation of 750 feddans on the Cairo- Alexandria desert highway to Mahmoud El-Gammal, Gamal Mubarak's father-in-law.
The prosecution alleges that "the land was sold to Al-Gammal at just LE200 per metre with the express purpose of it being reclaimed for agricultural purposes."
"Instead it was developed into a tourist resort comprising large villas."
Ahmed Idris, the prosecution official in charge of investigating the corruption charges levelled at El-Maghrabi, says the latter also helped Yassin Mansour -- the chairman of Palm Hills Company for Real Estate Investments who also acts as an agent for several American companies in Egypt -- secure large plots of land in 6 October governorate for just LE1 per metre.
"The deal is just one of many shady practices involving El-Maghrabi, some of which predate his appointment as minister of housing," says Idris.
El-Maghrabi is also accused of selling large plots of land at giveaway prices to Hussein Segway, the United Arab Emirates businessman who owns Damak Real Estate Company, Faisal El-Shoeibi, another Emirati businessman and Mounir Ghabbour, the Egyptian manufacturer of automobiles.
El-Maghrabi has offered to pay LE300 million to compensate for the discrepancies in the price of the land he approved for sale, while Ghabbour and Mansour have indicated that they are willing to pay up to LE475 million for the land they have already purchased or else return their holdings to the state. Ghabbour argues that "it is better for the state to accept money in compensation or repossess the land rather than imprison businessmen and thus threaten companies that employ thousands of workers with collapse".
Former minister of tourism Zoheir Garana is charged with selling five million metres at the Red Sea resort of Ain Sokhna to construction tycoon Hisham Al-Hazek in 2007 for just $1 per metre.
"At the time the market price of the land was at least $10 a metre. The state treasury lost up to $50 million on the deal," says Idris. Al-Hazek is board chairman of Al-Naiem Company, an affiliate of Mansour's Palm Hills Group.
El-Maghrabi and Garana are also charged with selling large plots of land on the Northern Mediterranean coast to Ahmed Ezz, the NDP's former secretary for organisational affairs, Omar Al-Futtaim, Egyptian agent of the Carrefour chain of supermarkets, El-Shoeibi, Al-Hazek and Abul- Enein, the UAE businessmen of Gigwany. Ezz has offered to refund LE1 billion to the government over the affair, while the other four have offered LE1.375 billion.
El-Maghrabi and Garana insist that they were acting on orders from Hosni Mubarak to sell large plots of desert land to real estate developers.
"The argument was that in order to encourage businessmen to come to the desert to reclaim land or develop it for tourist and housing purposes the land had to be sold cheap," says El-Maghrabi.
"Mubarak told me that 'Egypt will never have its vast areas of desert reclaimed or developed unless the land is sold at cheap price,'" claims Garana.
The land was sold to a very limited circle of business tycoons associated with Mubarak's son Gamal.
"Other real estate developers were not able to access desert land at a low price because they were not influential members of the NDP or associates of Mubarak's family," says former independent MP Gamal Zahran.
NDP business tycoons, he says, bought plots at knockdown prices only to sell them later at vast profit to Arab investors. "In return these tycoons donated millions to the activities of Gamal Mubarak's Future Generation Foundation and Suzanne Mubarak's Movement for Peace."
Between 2005 and 2010 Zahran directed many questions at Abaza. Zahran repeatedly tried to raise concerns over the land deals in the People's Assembly.
On Monday, the European Union (EU) decided to freeze the assets of ex-president Mubarak along with 18 others, including his family and partners. The decision was announced by the Brussels-based EU prior to a meeting on Monday in response to a request by Egypt's Foreign Ministry. The freeze targets Mubarak, his wife Suzanne Thabet, his sons and their wives, as well as Egypt's former minister of interior Habib El-Adli and other former National Democratic Party (NDP) members.
According to some Western press reports, Mubarak's fortune is estimated at $70 billion.
Also on Tuesday, Prosecutor-General Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud indicted former minister of finance Youssef Boutros Ghali and former minister of information Anas El-Fiki on charges of misappropriation of public funds. A prosecutor- general statement stated that Abdel-Meguid ordered the referral of El-Fiki and Ghali to Cairo's criminal court on charges of deliberately misappropriating public funds.
A prosecution investigation showed that El-Fiki had asked Ghali to set aside LE36 million from the state treasury to spend on the parliamentary election campaigns of Mubarak's NDP as well as cover the expenses of media campaigns to promote the political events and achievements made since Mubarak took office in 1981.
The prosecution said this was a waste of public money. The prosecutor-general has asked Interpol to arrest Ghali who is believed to be in London. Ghali left Cairo for Lebanon on 29 January when the government of former prime minister Ahmed Nazif was ordered by Mubarak to hand in its resignation.