CAIRO - Egypt's top auditor ignited an uproar when he estimated that corruption had cost the country billions of dollars. Yet the anger was not directed against the government or even long-established oligarchs, but at the auditor himself.
Hesham Genena has endured a barrage of criticism from pro-government media, well-connected businessmen and senior officials since he was appointed in 2012. But now President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, a former military chief who has vowed to wipe out corruption, appears to be siding with Genena's critics.
The furor highlights the government's sensitivity to criticism as it grapples with a worsening economic crisis and lingering unrest five years after the popular uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
After Genena alleged massive corruption in newspaper interviews last month, el-Sissi appointed a presidential commission that wrapped up its work in two weeks - lightning speed for an official probe - and accused the auditor of misleading the public with the help of unnamed “foreign” parties.
A presidential decree issued last year that could pave the way for the dismissal of Genena, who enjoys constitutional immunity, was recently approved by Egypt's newly seated and strongly pro-el-Sissi parliament.
Pro-government media have branded Genena a traitor and closet supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, now outlawed as a terrorist group. And the state prosecutor has issued a gag order on any reporting about the 400-page report detailing his findings.
Genena was appointed head of the Central Auditing Organization in 2012, a position that carries a degree of constitutional immunity. Since then, he has worked to expose what many have long seen as a pervasive culture of corruption. The London-based Transparency International ranks Egypt 94th out of 175 nations in combatting corruption, and anger at influential businessmen was one of the central grievances of the 2011 uprising.
In December, Genena was quoted by the pro-government daily Youm 7 as saying that corruption had siphoned off 600 billion Egyptian pounds (around $75 billion) in 2015 alone. He later said he was misquoted, that the figure covered four years and that it was arrived at following an exhaustive study. Another newspaper quoted Genena as saying the figure covered four years.
Genena declined to speak with The Associated Press about the report or the criticism.
Genena's lawyer, Ali Taha, told AP that three-quarters of the alleged graft stemmed from state lands illegally acquired by businessmen. He said the study was commissioned by the Planning Ministry and carried out with the U.N. Development Program. He said Genena plans to publicize his results next month.
The UNDP referred questions to the ministry, which referred them to the presidential commission. Presidential spokesman Alaa Youssef declined to comment on the matter.
The commission includes Hesham Badawi, a prosecutor with a long background in Egypt's powerful security agencies who el-Sissi has also recently appointed to serve as Genena's deputy.
The pro-government media, much of it financed by Egyptian tycoons, sprang into action after Genena's revelations, calling for his dismissal and demanding he be put on trial for undermining the state and tarnishing its image. They accused him of being an Islamist - charges he has denied - by citing the fact that he was appointed by Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist elected president after Mubarak's ouster. The accusations also stem from his prominence among an anti-Mubarak judges' group later found to be dominated by Brotherhood-allied figures.
El-Sissi served as Morsi's defense minister and military chief before leading his 2013 overthrow, which was supported by the security forces, the judiciary and businessmen who had thrived under Mubarak - the same constituencies now lined up against Genena.
Since then, the government has branded the Brotherhood a terrorist group and waged a sweeping crackdown, jailing thousands of mainly Islamist dissidents and imposing a virtual ban on street protests. The fifth anniversary of the pro-democracy uprising came and went last week with no public commemorations.
Critics say the campaign against Genena is aimed at silencing one of the last remaining voices of dissent.
“The message is clear to us: Even if you are a senior official you are not allowed to tell people the truth,” Negad Borai, a well-known human rights lawyer, wrote in the independent Al-Shorouk daily earlier this month.
The motive could be more personal. Genena and Justice Minister Ahmed el-Zend - an ardent supporter of el-Sissi and outspoken critic of the Brotherhood - have clashed repeatedly since their days in the powerful Judges Club, where el-Zend defeated Genena in a disputed election in 2009. Genena has said el-Zend is personally implicated in his reports and that he was behind the presidential decree giving el-Sissi the power to remove the auditor.
Parliament approved the decree last week, and lawmaker Mustafa Bakry, an el-Sissi loyalist, has been circulating a petition demanding that Genena be questioned by prosecutors. Bakry has said lawmakers will call on the president to sack Genena.
“El-Sissi is weak and he can't face the lobby of the corrupt,” said Taha, Genena's lawyer. He said Genena is already facing seven court cases, including one alleging that he belongs to an outlawed group - a reference to Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood - and should therefore be removed from his post.
The campaign against Genena could backfire, by reviving memories of Mubarak-era cronyism and undermining el-Sissi's image as a military man willing to stand up to entrenched interests.
“I am afraid the campaign will be used as a pretext to cover up for the corrupt,” said prominent columnist Abdullah el-Sinnawi. “What is really making me so angry is that those who are implicated in corruption are the ones who are leading this campaign.”