Governments and international banks should seize Hosni Mubarak's assets and hold them in escrow to be returned to the people of Egypt, an international corruption watchdog said Friday.

tp-huguette-labelle

Huguette Labelle, the chair of Transparency International, calls on governments and banks to investigate where Hosni Mubarak has stored his funds internationally. ((Martial Trezzini/Keystone/Associated Press))

"What is happening in Egypt today shows there is a major problem with a lack of transparency," said Huguette Labelle, the chair of Transparency International, an influential international corruption watchdog with ties to the UN.

After 18 days of protests, former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak stepped down on Friday, although his exact location remains unknown. His wife and sons are rumoured to have long since fled the North African nation.

His financial assets are believed to be spread across the globe, and as the motions to replace him in a democratic Egypt lurch into action, so too has the international movement to retrieve any financial assets he may have absconded with.

"When there is a dictator who appears to have acquired much more wealth than he would warrant as a salary of a head of a corporation or country, they should investigate immediately because you don't know where those assets are parked," Labelle said.

Labelle spent 19 years in deputy ministerial positions in the Canadian civil service across a variety of departments before chairing the international lobby group in 2005. She is also chancellor of the University of Ottawa and is a Companion to the Order of Canada.

'Egypt, like many countries in the Middle East, is a business.'—Money manager Avner Mandelman

She spent seven years presiding over CIDA, the Canadian International Development Agency, and now calls for international governments and banking institutions to investigate Mubarak's assets and seize any illegitimate funds.

"If there is any evidence of illicit transfers, then you put this money in escrow," she told CBC News on Friday. "It's the people's money. It should return to the people assuming there is a government that will look after it."

$40B stolen?

Reports this week estimated that Mubarak's family wealth could be in excess of $40 billion — a figure that would put him just behind Berkshire Hathaway head Warren Buffett, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Carlos Slim Helu, the world's richest man.

Those figures were based on numerous estimates, as finding an exact figure of how many funds the deposed leader could even theoretically have access to is as yet unknown. But it's estimated that 40 per cent of Egypt's 80 million people live on less than $2 a day.

A report by think tank Global Financial Integrity released in January found that Egypt is losing more than $6 billion US a year — more than $57.2 billion US between 2000 and 2008 — to illicit financial activities and official government corruption.

"Egypt, like many countries in the Middle East, is a business," said Avner Mandelman, a money manager and director at Venator Capital Management Ltd. "And it's currently a company being restructured.

"All the money that flows into the country is passing many hands," he said. "And those hands are sticky."

On Friday, Switzerland froze any assets belonging to Mubarak or his family. "I can confirm that Switzerland has frozen possible assets of the former Egyptian president with immediate effect," a spokesman for the Swiss finance ministry said.

In recent months, the country — which is shedding its reputation as a haven for hiding assets — has also frozen assets belonging to Tunisia's former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, as well as those of Ivory Coast's Laurent Gbagbo.

Labelle welcomes moves like that and said it is incumbent upon other governments and banks to follow suit.

"You don't necessarily do this on Day One," she said. "Right now is the stabilization period. But you can't wait two years from now either.

"After elections, that first government should create a commission of inquiry to investigate those who have assets that are beyond what one would expect."

Mandelman expects it would not be difficult, in time, to track most of those funds. "Big money has a weight and a magnetic pull all its own," he said. "You just have to follow the money."

A spokesperson from TD Bank declined to comment when asked whether the bank is considering actions similar to those taken in Switzerland to seize assets. "Because of privacy laws and policies we do not comment on, or confirm our clients," Mohammed Nakhooda said.

Similar requests to Canada's other major lenders were not immediately returned Friday.

With files from CBC's Mike Hornbrook