CAIRO: More than a month after the ousting of former president Hosni Mubarak, a vigorous assault on fraud and corruption is coming to fruition targeting businesses linked to the previous regime.
However, many in the business community have highlighted the threat of a “witch hunt” of accusations and charges, saying that a thin line separates legal action and slander, which if blurred could lead to jeopardizing the business environment and creating an unfriendly atmosphere for the private sector, the main employer and driver in the Egyptian economy.
In the most recent development, legal experts and businessmen have disagreed about the fate of corrupt businessmen and the potential effect of their incarceration, with a debate rising between those who advocate businessmen simply paying fines and others who call for them to be imprisoned.
Lawyer and legal expert Essam El-Eslamboly told Daily News Egypt that he disagreed strongly with the principle of exempting the accused from criminal punishment in the case of fraud charges.
“I disagree for two reasons. First, if we open the door for any charges punishable by jail time to be exempted by paying fines, we are differentiating between monetary and non-monetary criminal activity, which is unacceptable. Both should see punishment to the full extent of the law,” he said.
Second, he said, this means that affluent businessmen accused of fraud can use money to escape legal action, which is in itself fraudulent.
El-Eslamboly considered the suggestion an infringement on the judicial system in Egypt as a whole.
Punishments associated with charges might include court decisions to confiscate funds and assets in addition to jail sentences, he said, explaining that it was not an “either or” situation.
On the other hand, Khaled Abo Ismail, former president of the Egyptian Federation of Chambers of Commerce, told state-run Al-Ahram that the issue must be looked into with a more comprehensive view in terms of general public interest.
Businessmen being jailed, he said, might not be the best scenario as the businesses they manage employ tens of thousands of workers, pointing out that such employment might be at risk, thus negatively affecting the lives of those employed, their families and, ultimately, the growth of the economy.
Abo Ismail added that most of these charges were a result of businessmen illegally acquiring and improperly using land, pointing out that the victims of these cases include citizens who had purchased residential and touristic units on the land.
He proposed that the government amend the penal code to include a provision that would impose a fine on these offenders, doubling the value of the land which the developers would have to repay rather than shutting down the companies.
“This is the law and the law does not differentiate between businessmen and normal citizens,” Magdy Sobhy, deputy director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said.
Imprisoning business owners can affect businesses, he explained, by differentiating between administration and ownership pointing out that even if owners of these companies go to jail they are usually run by someone else and can still continue to employ workers.
“The land disputes which have caused problems for many innocent citizens are not a problem either since these companies can be fined and continue working while the owners and top executives, if charged and found guilty, serve their sentences.”