Treasure of the tyrants: amid the avalanche of anger that is starting to sweep away the old order in the Arab world, the hunt is on to recover the billions of dollars dictators and their cronies have plundered from their people.

Author:Blanche, Ed
Position:Cover story


IT'S NOT CLEAR, EVEN NOW, HOW MUCH TREASURE BEN ALI, but in particular his wife and her avaricious, Mafia-like family, the Trabelsis, catapulted into riches beyond their wildest dreams when Leila married the president in 1992, had amassed by the time they were driven out. By most estimates it ran into at least hundreds of millions of dollars.

That may be relatively modest compared to the billions allegedly plundered by other Arab dictators. But increasingly, a key target of the regime-wrecking avalanche of anger sweeping the Arab world is recovering the fortunes amassed by dictators, their families and business cronies who looted billions of dollars from state assets during their decades in power.

Ben All was feared and disliked for ruling with an iron grip for 23 years, ruthlessly crushing his opponents, throwing Islamists and other dissidents into the regime's dungeons. But the rapacious greed of the extended Trabelsi clan - Leila was one of 11 children - made him, and them, their countrymen's principal hate figures.

In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak had barely stepped down on ix February after 18 days of street riots than the Swiss government froze all the assets held in the country's banks by him, his wife Suzanne, their two sons and their wives, and their key political allies.

At that time, the new leadership in Cairo had not even got around to asking the Swiss to act. Bern's actions probably had a lot of do with the Swiss seeking to shed their reputation as the favourite repository of dictators' ill-gotten gains.

The days when notorious tyrants like Sese Seko Mobuto of the Congo, General Suharto of Indonesia, 'Papa Doc' Duvalier of Haiti, Idi Amin of Uganda, and Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic could rob their people blind then flee with their loot stashed away in secret Swiss bank accounts, seem to be coming to an end.

Even so, Global Financial Integrity, a Washington-based corruption watchdog, estimates that billions in illicit assets were squirrelled out of the Egypt by senior government officials between 2000 and 2008.

Estimates of the Mubarak family's wealth vary wildly, but most of it is held in British and Swiss banks or tied up in real estate in London, New York, Los Angeles and around the Egyptian Red Sea coast resort of Sharm El Sheikh.

Amaney Jamal, a political science professor at Princeton University, observed: "There was a lot of corruption in this regime and a stifling of public resources for personal gain. This is the pattern of other Middle Eastern dictators so their wealth will not be taken during a transition. These leaders plan on this."

However, US officials are more conservative about the fortune amassed by Washington's one time ally. "The corruption in the Mubarak family was not stealing from the budget, it was transforming political capital into...

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