Just where does Hosni Mubarak's wealth come from really?
Of all the remarkable developments pouring out of Egypt these days, one pertinent issue has yet to receive the attention it deserves — the curious case of Hosni Mubarak's wealth.
How much is it? Where is it all kept? And where did it come from?
Over the years, reputable sources have insisted that the president and his two sons, Gamal and Alaa, have accumulated somewhere between $15 and $30 billion in family wealth. Some estimates go far higher.
We should keep this in mind when some Egyptian and U.S. officials bleat on about Mubarak's "60 years of devoted service to his country" and that he deserves an "honourable exit."
Indeed, while the world media has understandably concentrated on the calls for freedom and democracy emanating from Tahrir Square, some reporters have noted the words most chanted in the streets of Cairo are "corruption," stealing" and "thieves."
So far, in the negotiations to replace Mubarak, the top opposition voices have skirted around this potentially explosive issue.
Still, on Monday, a group of 20 prominent Egyptians petitioned the public prosecutor to investigate these stories of the ruling family's vast wealth and how exactly it has been accumulated during the Mubaraks' 30-year lock on power.
Its rich source, according to several Mideast experts, flows from the sons being granted free shares in any new enterprise opening in Egypt.
Foreigner enterprises that wish to do business in Egypt are commonly asked to give a free 20 per cent stake to prominent Egyptians, according Christopher Davidson, professor of Middle East politics at Durham University in England.
"This gives politicians and close allies in the military a source of huge profits with no initial outlay and little risk," Davidson said in an interview "Almost every project needs a sponsor and Mubarak was well placed to take advantage of any deals on offer."
Understanding this kind of corporate tithing explains the hold the Mubarak family has on the country's ruling elite. But reporting on Mubarak's "hidden billions" may significantly complicate the efforts of both Egyptians and outsiders to nudge the aging president from office (and presumably into exile) in a peaceful transfer of power.
As the extent and source of his wealth becomes better known, it will become much harder for those in the West, to argue that Mubarak should stay on until September as a guarantee of stability in the region.
Because he has been a dutiful regional partner in the Middle East, successive U.S. administrations have been ready to downplay Mubarak's authoritarian rule.
But if hard evidence emerges of corruption running into the billions of dollars, then we should expect to see that familiar spectacle of official Washington scrambling away from yet another strongman friend.
Abuse and intimidation
"All this raises a question," New York Times columnist Roger Cohen insisted this week.
"In the name of what, exactly, has the United States been ready to back and fund an ally whose contempt for the law, fake democracy and gross theft flouts everything for which America stands?"
Of course, the U.S. and many other nations, including Canada, will say Mubarak's stability was vital to Mideast peace.
But these friends of Egypt now can't be "shocked" to discover the true extent of top-down corruption in his country.
It has been no secret that, under 30 years of Mubarak rule, traditional corruption in Egypt expanded at every level.
Egypt's government has been thoroughly abused by a system of bribes and favours backed up by intimidation and legal threats.
Anyone who hinted at financial abuse inside Egypt risked arrest and possibly torture by the feared secret police, who had their own stake in a corrupt system.
Even the military, beyond criticism in Egypt, has such extensive business interests that U.S. diplomats viewed it as a form of "Military Inc.," according to a recent New York Times story.
The military owns enterprises in electronics, hotels, energy and even household appliances and bread production that are often run by retired generals.
According to Transparency International's annual corruption index, Egypt ranks an ignominious 98th of 178 countries, just ahead of Mexico.
As for the immediate crisis, however, one has to wonder about the willingness of a systemically corrupt regime to yield to reform.
From what I have been told, there is fear throughout the upper reaches of the Egyptian government that a serious investigation into corruption will burn them all.
That prospect could well drive them to hang on to power whatever the costs to the country.
For how does one even begin to unravel corruption on this scale? The truth and reconciliation commissions that worked so well in South Africa and Northern Ireland dealt with acts of past violence. Dealing with stolen mega-fortunes may not be so easy.
There was a time when wealthy dethroned leaders — such as Egypt's playboy King Farouk in 1952 — could simply fly off into gilded exile on the Riviera or in Switzerland.
But today those in exile face posses of lawyers and investigators demanding prosecution and even extradition.
Determined to maintain the safety that power offers, the new government appointed by Mubarak has thrown a few sacrificial multimillionaires over the side.
Even a close business associate of Mubarak's son Gamal — the widely loathed Ahmed Ezz, a steel merchant and leading member of the governing party — has had his assets frozen.
But these token gestures have hardly appeased demonstrators who have run out of patience with a system that has cheated their lives at every turn.
Even as Egypt enjoyed economic growth in recent years, most citizens felt excluded.
The super rich grew ever more dominant and flashy while 30 per cent of the population remained illiterate — an astonishing non-achievement — and gross national income is a mere $2,000 per family.
While the world marvels at what is going on, an unjust system keeps those who lost out demonstrating in the streets, just as it keeps those who most benefited clinging desperately to power, lest the full truth come to light.