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A quarter-century later, Mubarak, Ben Ali and Gaddafi are believed to have deposited assets in dozens of countries, including the Gulf states and elsewhere in Asia, where governments have been slow to help trace them. Wealth left at home is an easier target. Tunisian investigators have uncovered hoards of jewels and cash in Ben Ali's palaces, while Libya's central-bank governor, Farhat Bengdara, who defected in March, estimates that Gaddafi keeps about $500 million in cash in Tripoli, as well as about 155 tons of gold bars, worth about $7.5 billion.
Tracing the missing funds is Step 1. Government officials in Egypt and Tunisia and, if Gaddafi is one day ousted, Libya will then have to prove in court, both at home and in countries where the missing funds are, that the wealth was illegally obtained. "It is not a crime to be wealthy and to have a political role," says Daniel Thelesklaf, co executive director of the Basel Institute on Governance in Switzerland, who flew to Cairo in May to advise officials on how to try to recover the Mubarak regime's fortunes. The Ministers of Tourism and the Interior under Mubarak have already been convicted of stealing public funds and are serving long prison terms. Mubarak's Finance Minister, Youssef Boutros-Ghali, fled Egypt to avoid the same fate, but in early July he was acquitted of squandering public funds. Other cases could be more difficult to prove, since so many officials were also major businessmen. "The picture is never black and white," Thelesklaf says. Egyptians say corruption has long pervaded their daily lives and that they still grease palms in order to park a car, rent an apartment or renew a passport. But the multibillion-dollar corruption within the regime's top ranks was more opaque.
Indeed, for those with political connections, there were fortunes to be made during the 1990s and 2000s. As Egypt, Tunisia and Libya began privatizing their state-run economies and opening to Western investment, partly in response to World Bank and IMF demands, there was a frenzy of dealmaking on everything from land to energy, power plants to mobile-phone licenses, with assets hurriedly bought, sold and then resold without tenders. In Tunisia, Ben Ali's in-laws, the Trabelsi clan, ultimately came to control much of the economy by acquiring hugely lucrative multinational subsidiaries, like Toyota dealerships, Carrefour supermarkets and the Orange telecom company, at very low cost.
In Cairo, Ahmed el-Sayed el-Naggar of the Center for Political and Strategic Studies for the government-owned Al-Ahram newspaper, spent years documenting how Mubarak's political associates bought public assets in no-bid deals at fire-sale prices, then resold them for profits in the hundreds of millions of dollars. In 2000, Mubarak's close aide Ahmed Ezz, who is now in detention on corruption charges, was allowed to buy a large tract of land near the Gulf of Suez for just $16 per sq m on the condition that he build a factory there. He built a metalworks, which he still owns, then sold the land within months to a Kuwaiti company, making about $37 million in profit. "Nobody wanted to put any obstacles in the way of privatization," el-Naggar says. "Not a single deal was correct."
The Arab revolutions could change all that. In Egypt, dozens of officials face charges of abusing their power in making huge profits. On May 24, Mubarak and his sons Alaa and Gamal were indicted on corruption charges. Tunisian officials have frozen assets of 110 members of Ben Ali's regime as well as numerous Trabelsi relatives. Libya's sovereign-wealth fund, valued at more than $50 billion last year, has been frozen under U.N. sanctions. U.N. investigators are probing whether member states have in fact frozen the assets in the fund, but their task is complicated, since the fund's investments were scattershot and its record keeping erratic, according to KPMG, which the Libyan government hired early last year to try to organize the fund's management. Shortly before the global economic meltdown in 2008, the fund invested more than $2.3 billion with Goldman Sachs and lost about 98% of the money once the crisis hit.
In mid-May, three months after Mubarak was driven from power, an Egyptian judge finally annulled the 2006 sale of the Omar Effendi department stores, ruling that the deal had been fraudulent. For Abdel-Hady, the ministry official who recounted being ordered to sign the sale documents, it was a personal vindication. Egyptian authorities are looking into whether then Minister of Investment Mahmoud Mohieldin who is now managing director of the World Bank in Washington violated any laws in the flurry of deals under his watch, including that of the Omar Effendi department stores. To the millions struggling to find jobs and make a living in a deeply unequal society, bringing back their countries' lost billions is not only a matter of justice. It would signify that their revolution has been a success. That's a victory the Arab world may have to wait years for.
This article originally appeared in the July 18, 2011 issue of TIME Asia.