CAIRO (Reuters) - When protests ousted Hosni Mubarak in February, many Egyptians unearthed old grievances against employers, politicians and neighbours, demanding justice from a legal system they had long seen as favouring the elite.
“The barriers have come down,” said a lawyer in the public prosecutor’s Cairo offices. “Nobody is afraid of anything now. They know no one is immune.”
The result has been a deluge of new corruption probes that has cheered many ordinary Egyptians but unnerved stockbrokers and bankers who worry an indiscriminate witch-hunt could stifle business and forestall economic recovery.
State authorities have already jailed a former interior minister on corruption charges, ordered Mubarak and his two sons to stand trial over the killing of protesters and graft charges, and are probing ex-prime ministers and other cabinet members.
New complaints are flooding in every day.
Some legal filings barely hide their malice. One seen by Reuters referred to a prominent businessman’s “Satanic plans” to buy land in a Cairo suburb and called a local politician allegedly involved in the deal a “destroyer of joys.”
Egypt’s military rulers, who took over when Mubarak left on February 11, face competing demands. Protesters want a wholesale clear out of a crony system but investors fear an indiscriminate widening of the net that will deter even legitimate business.
“There is a political need for justice, and a need to maintain good relations with the business community to keep the economy going,” Gamal Soltan, a senior research fellow at the Cairo-based Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, said. “That’s why this is a grey area.”
Many bankers and brokers, rattled by slackening growth figures and rising inflation, have already starting calling for the state to step in and protect executives who they say made deals with Mubarak’s government in good faith.
Reform-minded activists, on the other hand, fear remnants of the old ruling circle could use economic worries to prevent a full reckoning with the past and halt the changes they demand.
The uprising unleashed years of pent-up rage among ordinary Egyptians who watched a well-connected elite reap vast riches while most people struggled to get by.
Many summed it up with the Arabic word “wasta,” which melds ideas of nepotism, connections and influence. The right “wasta” was seen as the path to wealth, power and legal immunity.
During the revolt, protesters expressed their disgust with this system by torching commercial properties of businessmen like steel tycoon Ahmed Ezz, a senior member of Mubarak’s now-disbanded National Democratic Party.
Ezz, who denies wrongdoing, is in jail for questioning. Many Egyptians are still stunned by images of a man known for slick Italian suits now in prison garb and sat in a court cage for defendants. Others once seen as untouchable have joined him.
The business community is starting to use another Arabic term, “shameta,” or to delight in another’s troubles, to describe the current mood. Some lawyers say more and more new graft allegations seem driven more by jealousy than fact.
“Our problem is that a lot of these reports are not true. It’s just, ‘I hate someone, so I’ll file a report against him’,” the attorney at the public prosecutor’s office said, asking his name not be used because he was not cleared to talk to media.
Lawyers often spent the night in their offices sifting through the more than 70 complaints filed each day during the first months after the revolt, he said. In an average day before the uprising, they rarely received more than a dozen.
“The issue is how do you differentiate between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ businessmen? And how is the level playing field being reinforced in order to help establish a new business class?” John Sfakianakis, chief economist at Banque Saudi Fransi, said.
“In Egypt, you need a unifier. You need a Mandela figure that will bring people together.”
Local stockbrokers and bankers, whose livelihoods often depend on a steady flow of investment into Egypt, were especially alarmed by a string of court rulings to scrap state land sales. In some cases, building had already begun.
Dubai-based developer Damac said on May 17 it filed an international arbitration case against Egypt after a court sentenced its chairman to jail and fined him over a Red Sea land deal. It said it was a “classic case of guilt by association.”
Hashem Ghoneim, vice chairman of Cairo-based brokerage Pyramids Capital, said: “I can’t go and tell people that have bought land 10 years ago that, ‘Hey, you bought it illegally.’ See who the corrupt governmental employee that had the authority to sell him the land is, and get him.”
But activists are wary of what they see as economic scaremongering. They say Mubarak-era officials often muzzled investigative journalism or blocked prosecution of government allies by arguing it would hurt the economy.
“The bogeyman of ‘investor sentiment’ is the argument they used to justify their theft and to take what is not theirs,” said Hamdy Fakhrany, an engineer who raised lawsuits against land sale deals by Mubarak government.
Activists called for new protests after Mubarak’s wife, the president’s chief of staff and the former parliament speaker were released from detention, although they still face probes.
There has also been talk that Mubarak could be getting special treatment, especially after sudden illnesses kept the former president and his wife in hospital rather than in jail.
The military council issued a statement denying any plan to pardon Mubarak, a former air force commander, or his family. It has insisted such matters were left to the judiciary. His referral to a criminal court also helped dampen speculation.
But despite the flurry of litigation, convictions of officials have been relatively modest so far. Only two former ministers have been sentenced to prison, although they and others still face trial or questioning on other charges.
No revolutionary tribunals have been set up, and the country has seen none of the violent purges that followed the Romanian uprising of 1989 or the Iranian revolution of 1979.
Most cases are wending their way through the same legal system officials used under Mubarak. Even the military courts, as used under Mubarak, are still in place.
Egypt’s upheaval could turn out to be more of a gradual “reform conducted by revolutionary means,” said Soltan, adding that corruption suits would continue on a case-by-case basis.
Additional reporting by Dina Zayed; Editing by Edmund Blair