lunes, 7 de febrero de 2011

Egypt’s Ire Turns to Confidant of Mubarak’s Son


CAIRO — As Egyptians turned their anger on symbols of the state late last month, torching police stations along with the headquarters of President Hosni Mubarak’s ruling party, they reserved a special hatred for a garish building with black tinted windows in an upscale neighborhood, setting fire to it three times.  It belongs to a steel tycoon and ruling party insider named Ahmed Ezz, a close friend and confidante of Mr. Mubarak’s son Gamal. For many years, Mr. Ezz has represented the intersection of money, politics and power, controlling two-thirds of the steel market, leading the budget committee as a member of Parliament and serving as an officer and loyal lieutenant in the governing party. Public resentment at the wealth acquired by the politically powerful helped propel the uprising already reshaping the contours of power along the Nile.

Mr. Ezz’s world has come undone. He is treated as a liability by an old guard intent on saving itself from fed-up and furious protesters. He is under investigation on suspicion of corruption. His assets have been frozen and his right to travel taken away. He has denied accusations of corruption in the past, and his location was not known Sunday. Now his name is part of the derisive chants in Tahrir Square, a symbol of all that was wrong with Mr. Mubarak’s government.

“Ahmed Ezz sucks the blood of the people,” said Osama Mohamed Afifi, a student who joined the protesters in the square on Sunday. “He is the only man who can sell steel in all of Egypt, and he sells it for much more than if we could buy steel from someone else like China.”

Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt has long functioned as a state where wealth bought political power and political power bought great wealth. While hard facts are difficult to come by, Egyptians watching the rise of a moneyed class widely believe that self-dealing, crony capitalism and corruption are endemic, represented in the public eye by a group of rich businessmen aligned with Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son, as well as key government ministers and governing party members.

“The people around Gamal became the wealthiest group in the country,” said Hala Mustafa, a political scientist who quit the ruling party years ago, saying it was not committed to political reform. “They monopolized everything.”

While Egypt’s gross domestic product grew, so did the percentage of the population that was poor. Rumors of kickbacks and corruption swirled. There have been multibillion-dollar estimates of the wealth of the president or his family, but experts say those are unsubstantiated guesses.

A 2006 cable obtained by WikiLeaks described a 274-page report by an opposition political group detailing accusations of corruption by the president’s wife, Suzanne, as well as Gamal Mubarak and his brother, Alaa, a businessman. The cable, from the American ambassador in Cairo, Francis J. Ricciardone, noted that the accusations were unproven but called the report evidence of growing public anger.

“Egyptians are becoming increasingly vocal about sensitive issues despite the possible government backlash,” he noted.

The Mubaraks owned a five-story townhouse on 28 Wilton Place in the upscale Knightsbridge district of London, which has served as a base for Mrs. Mubarak and a home for Gamal Mubarak when he was working in London as an investment banker. A local property agent said townhouses in the area had sold in recent years for $10 million to $16 million.

Last week, a woman answering the front door of No. 28 said the Mubaraks had sold the townhouse, but property agents said there was no record of a sale, and neighbors said they had seen Gamal Mubarak and his family entering the house several times recently.

Mr. Ezz, in his tight Italian suits, became the best known and most reviled member of the group around Gamal Mubarak.

His father was a steel trader and his mother owned land in Gaza. Mr. Ezz grew up wealthy but not rich, according to Ali Moussa, a leading businessman and a member of the ruling party who has known Mr. Ezz since he was a child. The family steel business grew in the early 1990s, during a period of economic changes when the Egyptian government, at the behest of the International Monetary Fund, carried out a radical restructuring of the country’s economy.

On paper, the changes transformed an almost entirely state-controlled economic system to a predominantly free-market one. In practice, though, a form of crony capitalism emerged, according to Egyptian and foreign experts. State-controlled banks acted as kingmakers, extending loans to families who supported the government but denying credit to viable businesspeople who lacked the right political pedigree.