Al -Sanduk Al-Aswad: Kesat Hussein Salem (The Black Box: Hussein Salem Story) by Karem Yahia, Cairo: Dar Al-Thaqafa Al-Jadida, 2012. 184pp.
One of the key strengths to this book about controversial Egyptian businessman Hussein Salem is the rare effort to trawl through the significant archives and to encourage those who have stayed silent, to speak about the contentious subject.
The author Karem Yahia presents significant pieces of evidence documenting the last thirty years of theft, corruption and bribery committed by the now fugitive tycoon, who was once an important member and ally of the Mubarak regime.
Salem, who has been charged with corruption and profiteering, is most infamous for being involved in selling gas and petroleum to Israel for below market prices, consequently squandering public funds. However, the author, delves back into Salem’s past and early career and discovers a number of other less well known crimes.
This was not an easy task. Salem spent a large part of his career as an officer in the Egyptian intelligence service, thus was particularly careful to get rid of any information incriminating him, to the extent that whole archives have reportedly gone missing from newspaper institutions and even the Egyptian National Library and Archives.
The book largely focuses on the "Capitalism of the Cortege", a phrase coined by Yahia to describe Egypt’s political landscape which saw a special kind of economic setup where businessmen depended on close relations with the authorities. This led to the conditions we still find Egypt in today where a small business elite hold significant powers.
Salem, born in 1934, was the son of a school teacher who died young leaving an impoverished widow forcing Salem to support the family financially. After graduating from the Faculty of Commerce at Cairo University, Salem, who never served in the army due to an eye injury, began work in a social fund for the textile industry, earning a meagre LE18 a month.
This was not enough for a young man fond of cinema and the music of his generation as well as a penchant for British Victorian-styled women. This love of the Victorian era, Yahia asserts, is what inspired his hugely profitable Sharm El-Sheikh hotel Jolie Ville.
Salem's rise began after he began working in the Arab Company, which was the commercial front of the Egyptian intelligence agency working across the region in the 1960s. Amin Howeidy, the late intelligence chief, stationed Salem in Baghdad in 1967 where the budding tycoon made a name for himself in the financial world there.
Salem then moved to the United Arab Emirates in 1972, eventually becoming the manager of the UAE Commerce Company associated with the Ministry of Economy at the time.
Between 1972 and 1977, Salem took part in various commercial deals and started transferring money to Switzerland and investing in small hotels. He left the Emirates after news spread that he had committed various violations and had abused his position.
It is rumored that he fled the UAE hours before the police raided his office and that his own profits from his work there exceeded USD200 million, split between the Middle East and Spain, where he had bought a mansion in Mallorca and gained citizenship.
The third big leap for Salem came while he was based at the Egyptian embassy in Washington in 1979, where he continued to work for Egyptian intelligence and the Ministry of Economy.
He forged a friendship with the Egyptian Military Attaché at the time, Mohamed Abu-Ghazala, who later became Minister of Defense. He also was a colleague of Mounir Thabet, the head of arms purchases and brother of Suzanne Mubarak, wife of the then vice-president.
It was these three individuals who were to handle all purchases of American weapons after the Camp David Accords, in deals that reached $1 billion. According to the sources collected by the author, it is for this purpose that Salem established the Egyptian American Company for Transport and Services (EATSCo) in 1979 in the USA.
The company was involved in secret weapon dealings under the supervision of the CIA for Afghani Mujahedeen and other US-funded movements in Latin America. The shady transactions resulted in Salem being accused of fraud, based on receipts presented to the American Ministry of Defense. He was fined some $8 million.
The author writes that according to the archives of major US newspapers at the time, Salem paid the fine to the American Ministry of Defense in 1984 and the case was finally settled in return for another decent sum of money.
Another report asserted that Hosni Mubarak, when he was vice-president, took part in this company and its activities.
The report indicates that the then-president Anwar Sadat, upon discovering that the involvement of his vice-president in CIA secret weapon deals, requested an investigation but fate did not allow him to finish his enquires. Sadat was assassinated during the military show in October of 1981 and with him died the investigation.
Hussein Salem's crimes do not stop at this point. He made enormous profits after signing agreements exporting oil and gas to Israel. He also made huge financial gains in dubious real estate investment in the tourist resort of Sharm Al-Sheikh, as the true “ruler” of the city and the close confidante of Mubarak.
Salem’s luck changed after the January 25 Revolution.
Following Mubarak’s osuter, American media opened the EATSCo files. The American Broadcasting Company (ABC), for example, outlined the fraudulent activities of the company, describing Hussein Salem as the façade for Mubarak himself.
One CIA agent described meeting Mubarak, as vice-president, at his residence in Cairo, “I brought him throughout a period of time millions of dollars in bags. I only had to hand them to him. He took his share and passed the rest to Sadat … that's how EATSCo worked."
This story contradicts previous claims that Sadat objected to his deputy’s behaviour and ordered an investigation into EATSCo transactions but, as with many intelligence stories, they rarely agree.
Salem, who is now being tried in Spain, was effectively Mubarak’s sack of money. Many claim there is no chance of returning Egypt’s stolen funds except through him.
The author explains that he hopes that Egypt’s officials would benefit from the information the extensive research brings to light. This is one of the main reasons Yahia wrote the book: to right the wrongs of Egypt’s political past by restoring what was stolen to the country.