The Problems with the FBI Agreement with Egypt’s Anti-Corruption Agency

01/12/2018 . By Brad Youngblood

Just after Christmas, the United States embassy in Cairo announced that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Egyptian Administrative Control Authority (ACA) had signed a memorandum of understanding to facilitate ongoing cooperation between the two agencies. The actual text of the agreement was not released, and only the U.S. embassy and the Egyptian State Information Service published individual comments on the agreement (the ACA posted a link to an Egyptian media story and the FBI did not post about it). Assessing the effect or impact of this action is then difficult, especially since both agencies have cooperated regularly over the last three years, with officers training jointly at both agencies’ academies and exchanging high-level delegation visits. Yet a brief overview of the historical and modern usage of the ACA demonstrates that legitimizing the agency through joint cooperation protocols is highly problematic.

The ACA was founded by President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1964 as a body empowered to combat corruption in Egypt, research underperforming public projects, investigate illegal gains cases, and verify citizens’ complaints. It is based in Nasser City, Cairo, and touts itself as the first point of contact in Egypt for anti-corruption efforts with the United Nations, World Bank, African Union, European Union, and INTERPOL. When Egyptian media list the body’s most notable actions, they tend to include the shutdown of the world’s largest human organ trafficking network, several cases against major Egyptian businesses, the arrests of cabinet members and senior judges for corruption, and investigations on waste of public funds around the country. These efforts to combat the systemic corruption of the Egyptian bureaucracy and private sector is likely what draws the FBI into contact with the ACA. Nevertheless, these reports gloss over several larger issues.

For instance, despite being nominally independent, the ACA is actually beholden by design to the executive wing of government, since it reports to the prime minister and the head of the agency is appointed or removed directly by the president. This is not a novel concept in the modern Egyptian state, but the investigative and judicial power over civil servants and businessmen that the agency gives the president still cannot be ignored. This extension of power appears to have been the prime motivation for use of the agency by Nasser and former President Hosni Mubarak, who ignored the anti-corruption mandate of the body to such an extent that at least two appointed heads of the ACA were summarily removed over corruption charges.

The role of the ACA after the 2011 revolution was uncertain, though the agency has recently resumed its former prominence, rising while similar anti-corruption bodies fell. The most notable of these is the Central Auditing Agency or Accountability State Authority (CAA), whose written mandate overlaps broadly with the ACA and can be seen as its main rival for the position of chief anti-corruption agency. The CAA had never been fully empowered under previous presidents, though following Mubarak’s ouster the body began testing the limits of its ability to identify state corruption. The resulting report on corruption totals between 2012 and 2015 was publicly derided by the state for reporting too much corruption and Hisham Geneina, head of the CAA, was sentenced to prison for publishing false information about the state. This humbling of the CAA came as the ACA was growing in relatively closeness and importance to the executive. Current President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi appointed Muhammad Arfan Gamal al-Din, who is reportedly a War College classmate of Sisi’s, as the head of the agency, and Sisi’s oldest son Mustafa is famously a ranking member of the agency. Under their watch, the agency has filled its ranks with seconded officers from all branches of the security services.

The ACA under Sisi has resumed its operation as more of a presidential tool than an accountable state agency. This was apparent in 2015 when the ACA arrested the resigning minister of agriculture on corruption charges, only six months after he was vetted by the ACA prior to his oath of office. The reasons for the minister’s resignation were not announced, though he had garneredpublic ire and, prior to his arrest, fallen out of favor with Sisi. The ACA received praise for catching the corruption and no public criticism for approving the supposedly corrupt minister’s appointment.

The signing of this agreement with the FBI also comes at the one-year anniversary of a deputy chief justice in the administrative courts system and the secretary-general of the State Council, Wael Shalaby, being found deadwhile in custody at the ACA headquarters. The death was officially ruled a suicide, though former prisonersShalaby’s family, and his lawyer questioned this narrative until a media gag was imposed on the case amid reports of the psychological toll that “heavy interrogation” and sleep deprivation may have taken on Shalaby.

The ACA has then demonstrated a strong interest to return to its pre-2011 position as the executive’s cudgel against businessmen and civil servants. This is not to say that the ACA does not also engage in traditional anti-corruption campaigns. They recently made international news after concluding a 14-month investigation into “gang” activity that resulted in 75 arrests. The agency’s website is dedicated to trumpeting the number and efficiency of actions such as these. However, the agency’s checkered history should cause some trepidation on the part of anyone assessing the new agreement with the FBI.