Targeting Corruption, Egypt Goes After Mubarak's Wife

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Suzanne Mubarak, left with her husband former president of Egypt Hosni Mubarak in an undated photo.

Targeting Corruption, Egypt Goes After Mubarak's Wife Suzanne Mubarak suffers what may be a heart attack as Egyptian prosecutors prepare to level corruption charges against her By Vivienne Walt / Cairo

Egypt's former First Lady Suzanne Mubarak — who just three months ago was feted internationally for her charity work — suffered what may have been a heart attack on Friday after being detained in an investigation into possible corruption during the 30 years when her husband Hosni was president. By Friday evening, she had been transferred to the intensive-care unit of a military hospital in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik, and a source told al-Jazeera that she could be transferred soon to a women's prison in Cairo.

The arrest brought roars of approval among the tens of thousands of people gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square, as the news spread through text messages and Twitter feeds. As they have each Friday for months, demonstrators poured into the square — the heart of Egypt's revolution in January and February — to make speeches and chant until late into the night.

The former First Lady's pages-long resume lists honorary degrees from, among many others, Berlin Free University and the American University of Cairo, and a string of awards from Johns Hopkins University, Rotary International, and many other institutions. As First Lady, she was appointed goodwill ambassador for the U.N.'s Food and Agricultural Organization, and was an A-list guest at world events. She was, for example, seated next to Carla Bruni at the 2008 Bastille Day celebrations in Paris. Her demise, like that of many other prominent members of her husband's regime, seemed to offer hope of real change. "More important than the amount of money [allegedly stolen by many of the accused] is the psychological aspect," Salwa El-Antary, former research manager at the National Bank of Egypt, the country's biggest commercial bank, told TIME. "It means that the revolution has really succeeded. People will see that they have real authority in their country, that it is now our country."

The sums of money, however, could be significant. Egypt's newly-formed Illicit Gains Authority is focusing on a bank account of Suzanne Mubarak reportedly worth about $3.3 million, as well as a large house in Cairo which she owns, according to the country's news agency Mena. Her arrest is for 15 days, allowing prosecutors to interrogate her while they determine whether to charge her in court. On Thursday the head of the authority, Essam El-Gohary, said in a statement quoted on Egypt's Ahram Online news site that Mubarak had apparently kept an account worth about $145 million at the National Bank's branch in Heliopolis, an upscale area of Cairo. The amount was allegedly intended for the Alexandria Library, a hugely prestigious project that had attracted large donations from U.S. patrons and others. The First Lady had been the chairwoman of the Board of Trustees of the library, which tapped her high-level connections for support. It is still unclear whether the former First Lady or her husband had access to those funds. In a statement last month, Hosni Mubarak denied allegations that he has illicit funds or homes abroad.

While the former regime held sway, many financial dealings by the Mubaraks, their two sons Gamal and Alaa, or ranking officials, went unexamined and unremarked upon. "Every Egyptian knew that there was corruption," El-Antary said. "Not just Mubarak and his family, but also the ministers, were all businessmen. They had relationships with banks." El-Antary, an economist who ran the National Bank of Egypt's research department until 2009, said that the account of Suzanne Mubarak in question raised few suspicions among employees. "When there is an account in the name of Suzanne Mubarak relating to the Alexandria Library it does not look suspicious," she told TIME. "Plus, it was authorized by the Minister of Finance." That minister, Youssef Boutros-Ghali, fled to Beirut hours before Mubarak resigned on Feb. 11, and is now on the run from a request by Egypt's military rulers to extradite him on corruption charges.

The ire of ordinary Egyptians increased because of the high level of petty corruption, which inflamed their suspicions that profiteering among regime officials higher up the food chain had to be spectacular, even if secretive. "It was almost impossible for any Egyptian to conduct a single transaction without corruption," Hossam Hamalawy, one of Egypt's most popular bloggers, told TIME. His site, 3arabawy, has hammered officials for corruption since it began in 2008. "If you had to park your car, or renew your i.d., or start a business, you had to pay people," he said. "Corruption always existed in Egypt. But it's safe to say that under Mubarak, it skyrocketed."