Reporting from Cairo — Images of a former Cabinet minister and a steel magnate walking into prison have sent a shiver of disgust across much of Egypt as prosecutors widen investigations of the corrupt inner circle of former President Hosni Mubarak.
Rich and once untouchable men connected to the seat of power have tumbled into disgraced suspects captured on YouTube stepping out of a police truck and into jail. It's another sign of the startling change of fortunes that has enveloped this nation since protests forced Mubarak to step down a week ago.
Former Tourism Minister Zuheir Garana and steel tycoon Ahmed Ezz, a close friend of Mubarak's son Gamal, were arrested late Thursday and will be held for 15 days of investigation of corruption and other charges. Housing Minister Ahmed Maghrabi and former Interior Minister Habib Adli, blamed for brutality against protesters, have also been detained.
"There have been all kinds of crimes. They just go on and on," said Anwar Esmat Sadat, a former member of parliament and a nephew of the late President Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated in 1981. "There's a queue outside the attorney general's office of people wanting to file corruption suits against government ministers, Mubarak and other officials."
It is difficult to overstate the venomous feeling much of the nation has for tycoons and ministers connected to the National Democratic Party. The organization was largely viewed as a network of businessmen close to Gamal Mubarak, a former top party official, whose financial ambitions and desire for privatization epitomized the ruling elite's aloofness toward the poor and the middle class.
The Egyptian economy grew — at times, impressively — in recent years, but corruption and cronyism, according to opposition leaders, kept the rewards from trickling down to the working class. About 40% of Egyptians live on $2 a day or less, and it was the outrage among workers that helped fuel the protests that brought down Mubarak.
"Daily interrogations show that a former official or a former minister was involved in corruption, and I will not be surprised if members of the current Cabinet are exposed in the very near future," said Hassan Abu Taleb, an analyst with the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "Bit by bit we are watching the symbols of the old regime collapse."
Ezz and the Cabinet ministers, whose assets have been frozen, have denied wrongdoing in regard to charges that include money laundering, abuse of authority and squandering state wealth.
Ezz has been accused of illegally controlling a state-owned steel company that supplied materials to his firm, Ezz Steel, at reduced costs. In a symbolic act against the ruling party, mobs looted and burned one of his buildings in Cairo during the protests. But Ezz has said he supported the demonstrations.
"This great push that happened recently was welcomed by the whole of Egypt and went further than expected," he recently told Al Arabiya television news channel. "I must salute the youth. I didn't have a chance to meet the leaders there [in Tahrir Square]. I hope I have a chance to sometime. Personally, I was not expecting the revolution at all."
The arrests come as the military, which has taken control of the country, is urging hundreds of thousands of workers to end strikes that are damaging an economy that has been in turmoil for weeks. The imprisoning of onetime top ruling party officials indicates that the military at least tacitly approves of punishing those connected to Gamal Mubarak.
The army had long opposed the ruling party's economic programs, fearing they would incite social instability. It had also been highly critical of Gamal Mubark and his circle of businessmen.
What remains unclear, however, is whether prosecutors and the military, which has its own commercial interests, are seeking genuine reform against corruption or moving to appease protesters with a few arrests until public anger fades.
"This will enhance the people's trust in the military, which is surely, although not directly, supervising the prosecutor's work," Taleb said. "It was clear the military was never happy with the party's corruption … but the NDP and the army's loyalty to Hosni Mubarak stopped them from interfering."
Amro Hassan of The Times' Cairo bureau contributed to this report.