A jail sentence for Egypt's Mubarak on corruption holds little sign of real change

Former President Hosni Mubarak was given a three-year jail sentence for embezzling $17 million. But Egypt's current elite, largely identical to its old one, is unlikely to stop using the government for personal enrichment.

Tarek el-Gabbas/AP
Ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, sits in the defendants cage behind protective glass, during a court hearing in Cairo, Wednesday, May 21, 2014. An Egyptian court has convicted Mubarak of embezzlement and sentenced him to three years in prison.

An Egyptian court sentenced former President Hosni Mubarak to three years in jail today for systematically stealing $17 million dollars of government funds to finance his family's lavish lifestyle.

His sons Alaa and Gamal, who was being groomed to succeed his father before his downfall, were given four-year jail terms.

How much more time Mr. Mubarak, who ruled Egypt for 30 years, will actually spend in jail is uncertain. The sentence credits him with 23 months of time already served, beginning with his detention shortly after his overthrow in February 2011 and jail time after he was convicted for the murder of protesters in 2012 (that ruling was overturned last year).

Whether he will be allowed to spend the 11 months remaining at his lavish villa in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm al-Sheikh, where he spent some of the 23 months already credited to him, or in the Jakarta military hospital where he's been staying lately, or in one of the crowded prisons filled with Muslim Brotherhood supporters and secular activists that opposed both his regime and the current military-run government, is unclear.

What exactly has Mubarak been found guilty of? Journalist Hossam Bahgat got his hands on the prosecution's 2,000-page court filing against Mubarak and summarized the lurid tale of deception, embezzlement, and lavish wealth in Mada Masr yesterday.

Much of the prosecution's case revolves around the testimony of Amr Khedr, an army officer and architect who was seconded by the military to act as a majordomo on the Mubarak family's household staff 14 years ago.  His job has been to purchase home decorations and appliances for the Mubarak family mansions, oversee renovations, and cover up the use of public founds for the purpose, according to his testimony. (This practice of secondment is quite common with the Egyptian military. Many of the conscripts, for instance, are sent to work in military-controlled gas stations or factories.)

Baghat writes: 

For a decade, Khedr reported every day to the Mubarak mansion, where he spent his days fielding orders from family members, mostly from Suzanne and her two daughters-in-law, for refurbishment work, interior design, electrical home appliances and even kitchen supplies for the Uruba Palace and a number of other private houses and offices that belonged to the Mubaraks. (State-owned presidential palaces like Ettehadiya and Abdeen in Cairo or Ras al-Tin and al-Maamoura in Alexandria were the responsibility of the Ministry of Antiquities).

All of the construction, renovation and purchasing orders he processed were for private properties of the Mubaraks and therefore could not be covered or reimbursed from public funds. But he was instructed to misrepresent these expenditures so that they could be listed under maintenance work for telecommunication towers around the country that provided secure communication lines for the president. 

“I was executing the orders of the president of the republic and his family," Khedr told prosecutors following his arrest in March 2013. “It was not up to me to refuse. I was told this was how it’s always been done.” 

Mubarak was sentenced for theft between only 2003 and 2011. Though prosecutors said there was evidence the embezzlement began as early as 1990, they couldn't find original receipts from before 2003.

That Mubarak and his family, particularly his free-spending wife Suzanne, diverted large amounts of public funds to their own uses was hardly a secret. But it was not just Egyptian public funds. In 1999, the US Navy authorized about $650,000 worth of refurbishments for Mubarak's presidential yacht, a 150-year-old pleasure cruiser originally built for the Khedive Ismail.

Egypt's leaders have always treated government wealth as their wealth, as Khedr said. Mubarak's "L'etat, c'est moi" attitude is likely to endure in his successor and his courtiers. Bahgat points out that Arab Contractors, a state construction company, was deeply involved in authorizing payments for Mubarak's personal use.  Ibrahim Mehleb, the chairman of Arab Contractors during the period of theft, was appointed Egypt's interim prime minister by the military earlier this year. Bahgat writes that while pre-trial investigations indicated Mr. Meheleb was involved in the scheme, his name appears nowhere in the official indictment sheet.

How will the conviction play out among the Egyptian public? It's hard to say, particularly since it's unclear how deeply the Egyptian press, now strictly controlled by government censors, will dig into other corruption cases involving Mubarak or senior officers and officials who served him. Egypt's military runs vast businesses, from manufacturing to resort development, that are entirely beyond civil scrutiny. Senior officers, like recently retired Field Marshall Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, are suspected of greatly enriching themselves from military funds, and won't be interested in a broader corruption investigation.

With Mr. Sisi all but already anointed as Egypt's next president, the safe bet is that this will be treated as a gesture towards doing something about rampant government corruption that will mollify the public. The chances of a major overhaul of how business is done in the country are slim. Few of the powerful see any profit in that, and what's happening in Egypt now is a reshuffling of a crony-capitalist system at the top, not its dismantlement.  

Meanwhile, the ranks of protesters tossed into jail for the crime of protesting the government have swelled in recent days, with many sentences far greater than Mubarak's.

Sam LaHood, son of former Obama transportation secretary Ray Lahood, was one of the foreigners given prison sentences for democracy promotion in Egypt last year, shared the reaction of many to Mubarak's sentence:

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