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Activists seek Mubarak's assets

CAIRO - Switzerland has frozen whatever assets Hosni Mubarak and his associates may have there, and anti-corruption campaigners are demanding the same of other countries. But experts say hunting for the deposed Egyptian leader's purported hidden wealth, let alone recovering it, will be an enormous task.

Mubarak's actual worth remains a mystery. A recent claim that he and his sons Gamal and Alaa may have amassed a fortune of up to $70 billion, greater than that of Microsoft's Bill Gates, helped drive the protests that eventually brought him down.

"Oh, Mubarak, tell us where you got $70 billion!" protesters chanted in demonstrations before he was driven from office Friday.

Corruption was endemic in Mubarak's Egypt, where 40 percent of the 80 million people live on $2 or less a day, and critics accused officials of usurping the nation's wealth. Egyptians have long complained of an unspoken policy of sweetheart deals that allowed top officials and businessmen to enrich themselves.

In recent days, watchdog groups and private lawyers have demanded that the country's chief prosecutor launch criminal investigations against the Mubaraks and wealthy associates. Scores of former government officials have already been banned from travel and several, among them four former cabinet ministers, have had their assets frozen.

How far these investigations will go ultimately depends on the political will of Egypt's leadership, said Eric Lewis of the Washington-based law firm Baach, Robinson & Lewis, which specializes in international asset tracing.

"What you often find is that while there's a kind of political impetus that seems to want to do it, the reality is that the real urge for transparency is more symbolic than real," Lewis said.

Far-reaching corruption probes could test the resolve of military officials running the country in the transition period. Some warn that a purge of Egypt's tycoons could make economic recovery from the political crisis more difficult.

Anti-corruption campaigners are calling for a speedy investigation and are urging countries other than Switzerland to freeze assets pre-emptively. "It's going to be a very difficult task, but in the interest of public money, things need to move now," said Omnia Hussien, Egypt expert at the advocacy group Transparency International.

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