New York Times
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Oct 30, 2013
CAIRO » A year after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, the man responsible for rooting out government corruption, Gen. Mohammed Farid el-Tohamy, faced a very public barrage of allegations that he had deliberately covered up years of cronyism and self-dealing.
President Mohammed Morsi promptly fired the general, prosecutors opened an investigation, the news filled the papers, and his career appeared to end in disgrace.
But now the general is back and more powerful than ever. His protigi and friend, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, ousted Morsi about four months ago, and virtually the first move by the new government was to rehabilitate Tohamy and place him in charge of the general intelligence service, one of the most powerful positions in Egypt.
Western diplomats and Egyptians close to the government say Tohamy has emerged as the leading advocate of the lethal crackdown on Morsi's Islamist supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood, in a drive to eviscerate the movement.
Any public trace of the corruption charges — leveled by one of the general's own investigators — has disappeared.
"What happened to the prosecutors' claim of evidence of his corruption and obstruction of justice?" asked Hossam Bahgat, one of the few Egyptian human rights advocates willing to publicly criticize Tohamy. "Why was he ousted in that humiliating fashion? Why was he brought back from retirement the morning after the military takeover?" he continued. "There is zero public discussion of these very serious questions."
Tohamy declined to be interviewed for this article and did not answer written questions. No court has evaluated the allegations against him. His accuser, Lt. Col. Moatassem Fathi, a police officer, has also declined to be interviewed. In a television appearance last fall, he acknowledged that at one point he temporarily quit working for Tohamy at the Administrative Oversight Authority, the main anti-corruption watchdog. He was upset over a job transfer that he deemed punitive, and it could have given him a grudge.
But Tohamy's critics say he was the quintessential Mubarak man, the hand-picked guardian of the system of corruption and impunity that was a central grievance of the January 2011 revolution. And his swift and silent return, the critics say, signals a restoration of the old order after the military takeover.
Yezid Sayigh, a researcher at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut who has written about the Administrative Oversight Authority, asked: "Of all the qualified people in Egypt, why bring in Tohamy, who is way past his retirement age and under a cloud already? Why is this so urgent?"
Western officials who have met with Tohamy and other leaders of the military-led government say he quickly distinguished himself as the most influential advocate of a crackdown.
"He was the most hard-line, the most absolutely unreformed," one Western diplomat said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss private meetings with Tohamy. "He talked as if the revolution of 2011 had never even happened."
El-Sissi and the civilian ministers around him initially pledged to try to include Morsi's Islamist supporters in a new democratic process. For more than a month, el-Sissi appeared to consider the arguments of former Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei and a few others urging restraint in the interest of reconciliation with the Islamists, who had camped out by the tens of thousands at sit-ins protesting the takeover.
But within days of the takeover, Tohamy was already arguing against any inclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that led the voting in elections for Parliament and the presidency. Its members were "terrorists" whose movement must be excluded and crushed, Tohamy argued, according to the Western officials who met with him and with Egyptians in the new government.
By mid-August, Tohamy had prevailed: Security forces stormed the Islamist sit-ins, killing nearly 1,000 demonstrators in the largest mass killings in modern Egyptian history. (More than 40 security officers were killed that day in a backlash from the Islamists, some armed.)
All the state and private television networks adopted the same vocabulary as Tohamy.
"Egypt fighting terrorism," ran a banner the networks affixed to their screens, in Arabic and in English.
Islamists accused Tohamy of a vendetta against Morsi.
"Revenge is a powerful motivator," said Wael Haddara, a former Morsi adviser now living in Canada.
Mubarak's spy chief, Gen. Omar Suleiman, became his alter ego and ultimately his vice president.
But Egyptians and Westerners who met with senior intelligence officials say the service deeply distrusted Morsi, an Islamist as well as Egypt's first freely elected president. In June, Suleiman's deputy publicly urged Egyptians to join the demonstrations demanding Morsi's ouster, and since then credible news reports have said the intelligence services had been spying on Morsi to collect information that may now be used against him, possibly in a criminal trial.
In contrast, el-Sissi, Egypt's de facto new leader, had a long relationship with Tohamy.
El-Sissi and Tohamy climbed together through the ranks of the Egyptian infantry, where Tohamy, 66, had become a mentor to el-Sissi, 58, according to Egyptians and Western officials who know both officers. Tohamy had served as head of military intelligence, and he helped pick el-Sissi as his successor.
That was when Tohamy took over the Administrative Oversight Authority, a secretive agency run by the Egyptian military. It is a singular combination of a domestic spy service and an auditing bureau. Historians say President Gamal Abdel Nasser created it in the years after he led the 1952 military coup, to keep the army on top of his ever-expanding civilian bureaucracy.
The authority conducts its own electronic surveillance and operates its own jails. Former detainees, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, say both suspects and witnesses under interrogation were sometimes confined there for months without any judicial process or any assurance of release, and its extrajudicial detentions appear to have continued under Morsi.
But the authority reports to the president.
"Mubarak, and presidents before him, used it to exercise a form of control that stood above the state," Sayigh of the Carnegie Center said. "It could be used to reward or punish whenever it suited the president."
As soon as Mubarak handed power to the generals in 2011, Fathi, the investigator, filed detailed charges with prosecutors accusing Tohamy of colluding in the corruption he was supposed to root out, the colonel later said. But the case was quickly transferred to a military court and disappeared, he added.
When Morsi was sworn in as president in June 2012, his power was initially circumscribed by a simultaneous military takeover of all legislative authority.
When the generals finally yielded power in August, Fathi proclaimed in a television interview that the handover had "dismantled the last shackle on freedom" as the revolution had promised. He refiled his charges and this time went public, declaring in the interview that Tohamy "is one of the reasons for the corruption Egypt has suffered for the last 30 years."
"He is protecting the former regime," Fathi said.
In the television interview, Fathi said he had earned a master's degree in forensic accounting and worked for 10 years in a secret unit handling sensitive cases. He accused Tohamy of consistently thwarting the agency's investigators by locking away evidence in a "secret safe."
Tohamy had covered up reports that Mubarak's sons, Gamal and Alla, were given use of a government-bought private plane, called Eagle 2, and a yacht, Fathi said. He also said that he had personally written reports on allegations against both Mubarak and Ahmed Shafik, the former president's last prime minister and then a presidential candidate, but that Tohamy quashed them.
"You write all the information and you submit them as cases, but they don't come out," Fathi said in the interview.
He said that he had firsthand knowledge of 14 cases Tohamy blocked to protect senior officials, including a general who was governor of North Sinai and another general who was minister of military production.
In two cases, Fathi described charges that prosecutors or judges later rejected, citing a lack of evidence.
Fathi said that he and his colleagues had filed a 40-page report detailing charges of bribes and payoffs involving the sale of vast acreage of public land outside Cairo under the minister of housing, Mohammed Ibrahim Soliman.
In one example, he said, the owners of the Maxime development company sold Soliman two luxurious apartments on Omar Ibn al-Khattab Street for about $100,000. But a sale to a publicly owned bank around the same time put the value of the two units at more than $1.5 million, Fathi said.
And around the same time as the apartments' sale, Soliman arranged a deal involving 90 acres of public land for the same company, Maxime, Fathi said in the interview. Tohamy censored the report to just a few pages and left out all the evidence.
Soliman, who left office in 2005, said in an interview this week that he was innocent of any crime. He said that while Mubarak was still in power, prosecutors had dropped the charges Fathi mentioned after concluding there was insufficient evidence.
Under military rule after Mubarak's ouster and then under Morsi, however, Soliman was arrested on other corruption charges, jailed for 2 1/2 years and forced to surrender millions of dollars. He was released last week, under the new government, and he is awaiting a retrial for one of the charges. He said the charges against him were politically motivated.
Fathi also said that Tohamy had covered up documents, wiretaps, surveillance and testimony that showed Farid Khamees, chairman of the Industrial Affairs Committee in the upper house of Parliament, had paid more than $300,000 to bribe two senior judges.
CLAIMS OF PROTECTION
Khamees' lawyers later confessed to delivering the bribes on his behalf, and the judges who received them quit or were fired, but Khamees, who also owns rug giant Oriental Weavers, was acquitted for lack of evidence of criminal intent, according to news reports. Farid el-Deeb, lawyer for Khamees and for the Mubaraks, declined to comment.
Fathi said Tohamy had protected others in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces who had profited from the smuggling of subsidized fuel, some accumulating fortunes of as much as $7 million.
"There are complete cases of corruption involving officials at the military council known to everybody, including the council members," Fathi said in the interview. (He volunteered that el-Sissi, the defense minister, was not involved.)
Tohamy himself had received "millions of pounds" in gifts from state companies, Fathi said, and in turn used his agency's budget to buy birthday gifts worth as much as $16,000 a year for the former defense minister, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, and other presents for Mubarak's sons.
M. Cherif Bassiouni, an Egyptian-American legal scholar who has worked with Egypt and Western governments on efforts to find the stolen assets abroad, said the Administrative Oversight Authority was one of the few institutions that could have helped locate them. But it consistently failed to provide the needed financial records, he said.
The Administrative Oversight Authority "has the evidence, but none of that was ever disclosed," Bassiouni said. "That is why Egypt has never recovered a penny."
Learning of Fathi's allegations, two senior Morsi advisers, Rifaa Tahtawy and Assad el-Sheika, called the colonel to the presidential palace, according to other former officials and news reports, and Morsi soon fired Tohamy. (Morsi, Tahtawy and Sheika are now in detention.)
Fathi had quit around the start of 2011 after the job transfer, convinced he had been punished for his reports. But he later won his old job back. Now, he is still there at work, although he has been transferred again to a more limited job outside Cairo.
"They have got him locked in the basement," Soliman, the former housing minister accused in Fathi's reports, said with satisfaction.