Sisi’s Secret Gardens
Nizar Manek and Jeremy Hodge · Corruption in Egypt
The masters of Egypt’s arcane bureaucracy are still using ‘special funds’, or extra-budgetary slush-fund accounts, to siphon off state revenues for private gain and dispersal to patronage networks. Before he was deposed and locked up, Mohamed Morsi made a few half-hearted attempts to reform the special funds system and repatriate money to the treasury. But Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who recently announced a ‘national anti-corruption strategy’, has made no serious move against this idiosyncratic levy, which flourished under Sadat in the 1970s and increased dramatically under Mubarak in the 1980s. The secret gardens of Egypt’s bureaucracy and deep state may be harder to intrude on than Sisi claims to believe.
A report by the European Court of Auditors in 2013 said there were €4 billion in special fund accounts: 'Their exact size is unknown, as are the purposes for which, and the way in which, they are used.' Our investigations show that by the end of the 2012-13 fiscal year, when Sisi took the presidency, Egyptian government bodies had siphoned off at least $9.4 billion into nearly 7000 special fund accounts. Some of the money went on bonuses – or unaccountable payments – to people across the bureaucracy, including the Ministry of the Interior, the Suez Canal Authority, the Supreme Council of Antiquities (which manages the pharaoh industry) and the judiciary. (We have discussed the scope and set up of these funds here and here.)
The Supreme Council of Antiquities is a branch of the Ministry of Culture. It gets most of its revenue from antiquity tourism (pyramids, museums, ancient ruins) and private donations – mostly foreign – for conservation and ‘renovation’, a kind of cleaning-up in and around venerated sites. Halfway through the 2010-11 fiscal year, and a few months before the uprising, one of the council’s special funds was worth roughly $120 million, according to Ahmed Darwish, Mubarak's administrative development minister from 2004 to 2011. The fund also received money from international donors, Darwish told us.
Most of the council’s tenders for conservation and ‘renovation’ went to companies owned by Egypt’s military and state security top brass. That’s a worry for Robert Springborg, who believes the companies are ‘infamous for kickbacks and overpricing’. Springborg is a former consultant for the US Agency for International Development and an expert on Egypt’s military who has worked closely with the Ministry of Culture on heritage development. He and his colleagues saw the council’s account accruing tens of millions of dollars each year, spent at the minister’s discretion, and never audited by Egypt’s Central Auditing Organisation (CAO). ‘It was a carve-up between Farouk Hosni [Mubarak's culture minister] and the deep state,’ Springborg told us, ‘the military and security services.’
Enter Hisham Genena, a former Cairo Appeals Court judge and currently chairman of the CAO, who was appointed by Morsi as an anti-corruption tsar with a four-year mandate. Genena appears to be the object of a Sisi diktat, issued earlier this month, which allows the president’s office to sack ‘independent’ government regulators – from top officials to lowly anti-corruption fighters – in defiance of his own constitution. Since Egypt’s military putsch and the demise of Morsi, Genena has been admirably aggressive in his war on corruption, accusing some of the country’s most powerful figures of squandering billions of dollars of state revenues. In some cases he has documentary evidence, but we may never see it.
Genena’s anti-corruption audits are effectively secret, reviewed only by the office of the presidency. The army and presidency have been spared his attentions. Yet he has had to rely on media appearances to explain how thoroughly he’s been obstructed by the courts. He’s currently embroiled in a bitter dispute with Sisi’s newly appointed justice minister, Ahmed Zind, over allegations that Zind and other judges were involved in the sale of undervalued state land. After Sisi's diktat, Zind said it was only a matter of time before Genena would be deposed.
Genena meanwhile claimed to have evidence of corruption – across all the ministries he’d looked into – amounting to ‘hundreds of millions, even billions’ of Egyptian pounds (there are 12 Egyptian pounds to the pound sterling). He planned to press on, ‘no matter how high’ his inquiry took him: he said he’d filed 933 cases to judicial and regulatory agencies so far, all of them gathering dust. In an interview with the state-owned daily Al-Ahram he said that 70 billion Egyptian pounds (almost £6 billion) of state funds had been diverted in the first fiscal year of Sisi's rule. Genena could very well be impeached and disgraced before too long, but he may have more to say before he’s out of circulation.