Yehia Hussein Abdel-Hady still shudders at the memory of that morning in 2006 when he was summoned to Egypt's Ministry of Investment and handed a three-page document. "They said, 'Just sign,'" says Abdel-Hady, a ministry official who had been charged with evaluating privatization deals. The document authorized the sale of Omar Effendi, one of Egypt's biggest chains of state-owned department stores, for "the amount stipulated on the attachment," says Abdel-Hady. Yet there was no attachment. When Abdel-Hady hesitated, his colleagues ordered him not to question the document. Three days later, all 82 department stores plus the land on which they stood were sold to a Saudi businessman for about $99 million a fraction of what Abdel-Hady had previously estimated they were worth. "The government was in a hurry to sell," he says bitterly, "no questions asked."
Now the questions are coming thick and fast. In the space of a few months, the Arab Spring has shattered years of silence over corrupt backroom deals, which have been a feature of business in the region for decades. People are now free to challenge what happened under their ousted dictators and are demanding back billions of dollars that they claim leaders, along with their relatives and top officials, siphoned off and often stashed abroad. "These economies operated under a cloak of opacity," says Anthea Lawson of Global Witness, an anticorruption research organization in London. "Corruption was the entire basis of these uprisings, and people were sufficiently furious to risk their lives and try and overthrow it."
In Tunisia, the economy was dominated by relatives of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, who fled on Jan. 14. His family owned houses in Paris, the Alps and the south of France. Switzerland froze about $69 million of the ruling clan's bank deposits, while both the French and Swiss governments impounded private planes belonging to the family.
Among the first demands of Libya's rebels when the revolt erupted in Benghazi in February was for Europe and the U.S. to freeze all assets of Muammar Gaddafi and his family members, who are worth billions, according to estimates by officials who defected. Just a few of those now frozen assets: an office building in London's West End, 3% of the British publisher Pearson, a stake in Italy's Juventus football club and a 7,000-hectare spread on Spain's Costa del Sol.
Egypt's missing fortunes appear equally staggering and were a driving force behind the revolt. Months after Hosni Mubarak finally abandoned his nearly 30-year rule, many in Cairo believe the revolution might have stalled in early February, its activists exhausted and cold, had it not been for an article in Britain's Guardian newspaper on Feb. 4 that estimated the Mubarak family fortune at $40 billion to $70 billion, including homes in Beverly Hills, Manhattan and London's Belgravia district.
The article caused a sensation in Egypt. "I was in Tahrir Square when that story broke, and I trembled," says Hossam Issa, a commercial-law professor at Cairo's Ain Shams University. "My first reaction was, 'This could be a way to topple Mubarak.'" Issa was right. Within a day of the story's publication, tens of thousands more Egyptians poured into the square to join the protests, many of them poor people chanting, "Mubarak stole $70 billion." Within a week, Mubarak was gone.
Yet for all the fury over stolen billions, it will not be easy to take the alleged loot home. In numerous interviews, financial experts in Switzerland, Britain and the U.S. say tracing the dictators' fortunes including that of Gaddafi, who is still in power is just the first daunting challenge. Most countries require those trying to recover stolen assets to identify the people who have hidden money, jewels or other riches and where the assets are. "You cannot just go on a fishing expedition," says Lawson. "You have to know what you are looking for."
Government officials in Egypt, Tunisia and rebel-held eastern Libya are scrambling to piece together the puzzle of their leaders' wealth in order to submit the raft of documents required by foreign banks. Their work is greatly complicated by the reluctance of most public servants and other sources to divulge details, which could land them in jail for years, depending on who ends up in power. Since only a few officials know where to look, there is pressure to find the assets quickly. "The risk in cases like these is that nobody knows where the money is and that people die and the documents are never recovered," says Pierre Schifferli, a Geneva attorney who helped recover billions embezzled by Nigerian President Sani Abacha and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos. "Marcos' money was so well hidden that not even his family members knew where it was," Schifferli says. "It's like hiding 30 Easter eggs in the garden, and the kids find 28 of them. For a long time you will think, 'Where the heck are the other two?'"