Images and videos of the once untouchable but now disgraced cronies from the inner circle of ousted president Mubarak, sitting behind bars while receiving insults from gloating people, is one of the most momentous images of the 25 January revolution.
Seeking acquittal, six prominent businessmen, including Ahmed Ezz, the steel oligarch with a near-monopoly and a close friendship with Hosni Mubarak's son, Mounir Ghabbour, Hisham Al-Hathek, Hussein Sajwani, Mohamed Abul-Enein and UAE businessman Omar Al-Futtaim, have recently offered to make financial reparations, totaling some LE2.375bn.
One has pledged to return five million square metres of land on the country's northern coast that is alleged to have been gained illegally, with the former secretary of the National Democratic Party, Ezz offering to pay LE1bn, representing the value of shares seized by his Suez Steel Company, in violation of trading regulations.
After the collapse of the thirty-years-old Mubarak regime on 11 February marking the success of the revolution, violence and rage have been rumbling throughout Egypt against these businessmen and other Mubarak cronies.
In a quick response, Egypt's first step towards absorbing the people’s anger was to put some of these figures behind bars. The general prosecutor has filed formal charges against dozens of former ministers and prominent businessmen, for abusing their positions to enrich themselves and misusing public money. They have had their assets blocked and been refused permission to travel abroad.
"We are studying the possibility of benefiting from the reconciliation experiences in Morocco, Chile and South Africa," Yehia El-Gamal, deputy prime minister said a few days ago on a programme aired by State television.
In South Africa, after the collapse of the apartheid dictatorship regime, the "Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)" was created to look into corruption and human rights violations. Committees were formed comprising a legal expert, a member of parliament and a human rights representative. The committee would meet with the charged officials, and impose a compensation fine.
“If Egypt were to follow this example it may establish reconciliation in Egyptian society and also recover the funds misappropriated during the regime of former president Mubarak,” Al-Gamal added.
While for the government it is “wise” to establish reconciliation, lawyers and activists believe that financial reparation for the victims of past injustices "can never wipe the slate clean”.
"I think thirty years of corruption and theft of public money in favour of a few oligarchs can never be washed away by mere financial reparation," says Khaled Ali. "Angry people will never tolerate the cronies who have sucked their blood for years".
An ongoing poll conducted by Ahram Online showed that two thirds of participants think the government should respond to business tycoons by giving them jail time, plus confiscation of illegal gains, with only 9 per cent thinking they should be spared prison if they were to return state funds.
From a legal point of view, there is the ‘reconciliation of public funds’ article 88 of the Criminal Law act, which states the possible release of economic criminals if they were to repay any ill-gotten funds.
“There are laws allowing citizens accused of wasting public funds to request reconciliation,” one legal expert and ex-official told Ahram Online on condition of anonymity. “The law also allows freezing an investigation in cases where the 'wasted' money has been paid back.”
"Yet, this judgment is subject to the discretion of the court" added the source.
In previous cases, Egypt’s prosecution and the Court of Cassation have frozen investigations and released suspects who were willing to pay.
“Recent legal trends say the court may seek reparation if it is in the interest of the injured individuals, when his or her rights have been infringed,” leading lawyer and expert in criminal law, Bahaa Eddin Abu Shoqa told Ahram Online. “In this case, the injured are the Egyptian people”.
“How will Egyptians benefit if Ezz and other businessmen were jailed, while billions of dollars of their money is lost to the public?’ asks Abu Shoqa.
Abu Shoqa, who has allegedly refused to defend Mubarak and his family despite being offered large amounts of money, maintains that the court should take into consideration the fact that this money was taken at a time when the whole business environment in Egypt was corrupt, and watchdog organisations were powerless.
‘We have got to keep in mind that these businessmen were employing thousands of young people, and that putting them in jail will leave them jobless,” he added.
‘I think the court, as well as public opinion, should also take into consideration that most of their money is kept in banks abroad and we might never be able to get it back,” he said. ‘Why not get the money back, which would benefit the whole economy, just like what happened in the loans case?”
This was one recent example of reconciliation when following a seven-year trial against 31 businessmen and bankers found guilty of the misappropriation of bank funds - to the tune of LE1.256 billion back in 1995 - the court handed out the maximum penalty, ranging from five to 15 years, all of them with hard labour.
The sentences were later reduced, and those people released who had been able to return the money to the State.
‘That case is different from the cases of corruption currently being investigated,” says Ali. “There were two clear opponents: the MPs and the banks, who agreed to settle the debt and undo the damage”.
‘But when institutions, and the individuals who run them, harm the great mass of society and profit wildly along the way, they should not only make restitution for the damage they have caused, but also be put in jail to deter others from committing these crimes against Egyptians,” declared Ali.