Freeze continues on African dictators’ assets

Switzerland is still working to return nearly one billion francs ($1.1 billion) in frozen assets to needy North African countries who deposed autocratic leaders in the Arab Spring, the foreign affairs ministry says.

The Swiss government continues to hold 700 million francs in assets from ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and his associates, frozen since his departure from power in 2011, Valentin Zellweger, the head of the foreign ministry's international law department, said in Geneva on Tuesday.

It also holds 60 million francs in funds linked to ousted Tunisian dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali since he left the country early the same year, Zellweger said.

Switzerland is currently working with the new administrations in those countries to find a way to return the funds to the Egyptian and Tunisian people, he said.

Following separate UN Security Council resolutions, Switzerland blocked 100 million francs from Libya and another 100 million francs from Syria, Zellweger said.

Asked why the restitution of funds to Tunisia and Egypt was taking so long, he said the onus was on those nations, since "it is they who determine the speed of the procedures."

"Switzerland is confronted in Egypt and Tunisia with cases unprecedented in size," Zellweger said.

In Tunisia's case, Switzerland held the accounts of 48 people close to Ben Ali, while 32 people linked to Mubarak had their holdings frozen in the Egyptian case, he said, adding that each account had registered between 250 and 2,000 separate transactions.

When asked about the relatively modest amount of frozen Tunisian funds, Zellweger cited two possible explanations:

Either "the Ben Ali clan did not like Switzerland" and had therefore placed its funds elsewhere, or the Swiss measures taken to avoid suspicious funds "worked well, and Swiss banks refused the funds," he said.

Switzerland is the only country that has published the amount of funds it has frozen, Zellweger said.

But he could not predict how long it would take to return the cash to its countries of origin, where in most cases the money is desperately needed for reconstruction or democratization efforts in the vacuum left by the departed dictators.

The fastest such procedure ever carried out by Switzerland took five years, ending in 1998 with the restitution of blocked funds linked to Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha after his reign ended with his death in 1998.
While frozen in Switzerland, the funds are managed conservatively, and any interest gains are returned to the country in question, along with the capital.

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Two Danes climbed a pyramid. Why is Egypt mad?

Last week, a sexually-charged video and photos emerged on social media of two Danes climbing the Great Pyramid at Giza. Egyptian journalist Farah Bahgat explains the reaction in Cairo.

Two Danes climbed a pyramid. Why is Egypt mad?
Two Danes caused outrage in Egypt by climbing the Pyramid of Khufu and making a sexual video. File photo: AP Photo/Amr Nabil/Ritzau Scanpix

In 2003, an Egyptian film titled The Danish Experience premiered and instantly became a Middle Eastern blockbuster about the extreme cultural differences between Egypt and Denmark, particularly when it comes to sex. 

The Danish Experience was a comedy about a Danish woman, Anita, who visits Egypt and stays with a government minister and his four 20-something sons and teaches them her perspective on sexual freedom.

In one scene, as Anita talks about how nudity is socially acceptable in Denmark, her Egyptian host family are constantly astonished by how confidently she is tackling a topic they consider a taboo.

Fifteen years later, when 23-year-old Dane Andreas Hvid posted a video of him and a friend climbing a pyramid, along with a sexually charged photo, these cultural differences became relevant again as Egyptian anger was sparked.

Although a similar incident occurred in 2016, when a German tourist was banned from re-entering Egypt after he climbed a pyramid, it did not spark the same outrage, perhaps because the only difference was that no sex was involved.

In one of the most memorable scenes in the 2003 film, Anita takes off a blanket and appears to be naked. “Sex is not a bad thing, Mr. Qadri,” she says, while Qadri feels uncomfortable and puts the blanket back on her.

For Danes, it is socially acceptable to swim naked, and there are no laws prohibiting such nudity. There are also spaces where it is allowed to publicly have sex, such as Ørstedsparken in Copenhagen.

A study by YouGov in 2013 found that 41 percent of Danes who participated in the survey have previously engaged in sexual activity in a public space, giving Denmark the highest score for public sex among Europeans.

The total opposite is true in Egypt. “Inciting debauchery” and “harming public morality” are criminal charges that could lead to imprisonment or a fine.

Last year, an Egyptian singer, Shyma, was jailed for both charges after she appeared in a music video that was perceived as “sexually charged”.

And just a few days before Hvid’s video went viral, two conservative lawyers announced they were suing actress Rania Youssef over a “revealing dress” she wore to a film festival, accusing her of “incitement to debauchery”.

The same charges are often used in the crackdown on the LGBTQ community.

Denmark was the first country in the world to recognize same-sex marriage. In Egypt, the police arrested about 100 concert attendees last year for waving the rainbow flag.

The incident also tells us something about corruption in Egypt. In an opinion piece in Egypt’s state-owned newspaper Al Ahram, Ahmed Abdel Hakam wrote that in exchange of money everything is possible in Egypt.

Two suspects were arrested on charges of helping Hvid and his friend climb the pyramid.

One of the two, a woman, established contact between the Danish couple and the camel owner, who illegally transported them to the pyramid on the evening of November 29th for the price of 4,000 Egyptian pounds, around 1,500 kroner (200 euros), according to the Egyptian interior ministry.

“The moral that appears out of this story, even if it’s wrong, is that it is possible to commit any [act of] indecency or corruption as long as you find someone who helps you for [an amount] of money,” Hakam wrote.

Corruption is also another major difference between Egyptian and Danish societies, one that makes disrespect and vandalism of one of the world’s archaeological wonders possible – by foreigners and with Egyptian complicity.

Egypt ranks as number 117 on the Corruption Perceptions Index 2017, while Denmark ranks as number 2. The index reflects levels of trust in the government.

Social media users in Egypt have responded to the incident by in criticizing the government and its administration of the area where the pyramids and the Great Sphinx of Giza are located.

A few days after the video of the Danes climbing the Great Pyramid emerged on social media, the government announced that Orascom, a company owned by Egypt’s wealthiest man, will take over the administration of tourist facilities at the area.

The Danish Experience concludes with Anita deciding to leave Egypt after the culture clash causes conflict within her host family. Hvid has said that he is not planning to return to Egypt, fearing legal trouble over his sexually-charged, unlawful visit to the pyramids.

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