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In Egypt, a corruption watchdog hit by backlash

Friday - 4/18/2014, 2:48pm  ET

In this Tuesday, April 16, 2014 photo, Hesham Genena, the head of Egypt's oversight body, speaks during an interview with the Associated Press at his office in Cairo, Egypt. Genena has created uproar simply because he decided to actually do his job. The head of one of Egypt’s foremost government oversight agencies, he says he has uncovered billions of dollars-worth of corruption, including in the country’s most untouchable institutions, including the police, intelligence agencies, and the judiciary. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

MAGGIE MICHAEL
Associated Press

CAIRO (AP) -- Hesham Genena has created uproar by trying to actually do his job. The head of one of Egypt's foremost government oversight agencies, he says he has uncovered billions of dollars-worth of corruption, involving some of the country's most untouchable institutions, including the police, intelligence agencies, and the judiciary.

As a result, rivals have barraged him in the media, calling him a sympathizer with the Muslim Brotherhood. His insistence on going public with allegations has led to two court cases against him, including one for insulting judges.

And he is struggling to translate his investigations into action. He has referred hundreds of cases to the general prosecutor but says less than 7 percent have been investigated. He has complained that security agencies bar his staff from inspecting their documents.

"I can't say they have stopped all investigations. But they are not responding to our requests," he said of the prosecutors' office in an interview with The Associated Press this week "When I send a report, they should respond . They don't. We have no way of knowing."

If the prosecutors won't follow through, he added, there's "only God after that."

It was not possible to get a comment from the prosecutor's office, which rarely comments on cases open for investigation.

The 60-year-old Genena, -- head of the Central Auditing Organization, a state agency tasked with overseeing the government's finances -- has given a rare public look into what he calls a pervasive culture of corruption in Egypt. For decades, Egyptians have complained of graft by officials. It was one of the factors that fueled the 2011 uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

But rarely has there been a public drive to go after perpetrators, particularly senior officials.

"Many officials look at me and say, 'He is crazy for what he is doing,'" Genena told AP, speaking in his Cairo office. "What I'm seeking to do is give a shock to society, to fix it."

Egypt is "a country about to vanish because of corruption by successive regimes," he said.

For years, government oversight agencies, including the CAO, have been purely cosmetic, Genena said. Their reports were "merely ink on paper" -- unless authorities wanted to pursue a suspected official "as a form of extortion," he said.

If an agency found suspected graft, embezzlement or corrupt business deals, he said, it would send a report to the government ministry where the violation was believed to be taking place, but rarely ensured the issue was addressed or pressed officials to investigate.

In contrast, since being named to the position in September 2012, Genena has been trying to bring real action.

In February, he announced at a press conference that he had referred more than 900 cases to the prosecutor general or two other bodies, the administrative prosecutor and Illegal Gains Agency. Less than 7 percent of those cases are known to have been put under investigation or taken to trial, according to the figures he gave at the press conference.

In one case, Genena told AP, investigations revealed that some $3 billion dollars was misappropriated in land deals by officials from the police, intelligence agencies, the judiciary and prosecutors.

In another, he reopened a 3-year-old case over allegations that members of an advisory board for the state national communications regulator -- which included the justice minister at the time -- had received some $14 million in financial compensation.

What is unprecedented in Genena's move is his willingness to investigate so-called "sovereign agencies," the term referring to the most important and unquestionable arms of the state, such as the police, intelligence, judiciary and the presidency. He has been empowered by the constitution passed this year, which encourages the fight against corruption and supervision of state bodies.

There may be limits, however.

Notably, Genena has not made allegations against the most powerful state body of all, the military. The military took the unheard-of step of allowing the CAO under Genena to review the accounts of its extensive business holdings. Speaking to the AP, Genena said that his review had found no violations in the military's books.

His other moves have brought a heavy backlash. The former justice minister, who left office in a recent Cabinet reshuffle, accused Genena of insulting him, prompting prosecutors in February to refer Genena to trial.

After Genena publicly criticized the Judges Club, an association of judges, for not allowing its employees to be inspected, the head of the club accused him of insulting the judiciary, prompting another trial for Genena, which holds its next session next week.

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