By Vivienne Walt ~ CAIRO

Yehia Hussein Abdel-Hady still shudders at the memory of that morning in 2006 when he was summoned to Egypt’s Ministry of Investment and handed a three-page document. “They said, ‘Just sign,'” says Abdel-Hady, a ministry official who had been charged with evaluating privatization deals. The document authorized the sale of Omar Effendi, one of Egypt’s biggest chains of state-owned department stores, for “the amount stipulated on the attachment,” says Abdel-Hady. Yet there was no attachment. When Abdel-Hady hesitated, his colleagues ordered him not to question the document. Three days later, all 82 department stores plus the land on which they stood were sold to a Saudi businessman for about $99 million — a fraction of what Abdel-Hady had previously estimated they were worth. “The government was in a hurry to sell,” he says bitterly, “no questions asked.”

Now the questions are coming thick and fast. In the space of a few months, the Arab Spring has shattered years of silence over corrupt backroom deals, which have been a feature of business in the region for decades. People are now free to challenge what happened under their ousted dictators and are demanding back billions of dollars that they claim leaders, along with their relatives and top officials, siphoned off and often stashed abroad. “These economies operated under a cloak of opacity,” says Anthea Lawson of Global Witness, an anticorruption research organization in London. “Corruption was the entire basis of these uprisings, and people were sufficiently furious to risk their lives and try and overthrow it.”

In Tunisia, the economy was dominated by relatives of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, who fled on Jan. 14. His family owned houses in Paris, the Alps and the south of France. Switzerland froze about $69 million of the ruling clan’s bank deposits, while both the French and Swiss governments impounded private planes belonging to the family.

Among the first demands of Libya’s rebels when the revolt erupted in Benghazi in February was for Europe and the U.S. to freeze all assets of Muammar Gaddafi and his family members, who are worth billions, according to estimates by officials who defected. Just a few of those now frozen assets: an office building in London’s West End, 3% of the British publisher Pearson, a stake in Italy’s Juventus football club and a 7,000-hectare spread on Spain’s Costa del Sol.

Egypt’s missing fortunes appear equally staggering and were a driving force behind the revolt. Months after Hosni Mubarak finally abandoned his nearly 30-year rule, many in Cairo believe the revolution might have stalled in early February, its activists exhausted and cold, had it not been for an article in Britain’s Guardian newspaper on Feb. 4 that estimated the Mubarak family fortune at $40 billion to $70 billion, including homes in Beverly Hills, Manhattan and London’s Belgravia district.

The article caused a sensation in Egypt. “I was in Tahrir Square when that story broke, and I trembled,” says Hossam Issa, a commercial-law professor at Cairo’s Ain Shams University. “My first reaction was, ‘This could be a way to topple Mubarak.'” Issa was right. Within a day of the story’s publication, tens of thousands more Egyptians poured into the square to join the protests, many of them poor people chanting, “Mubarak stole $70 billion.” Within a week, Mubarak was gone.

Yet for all the fury over stolen billions, it will not be easy to take the alleged loot home. In numerous interviews, financial experts in Switzerland, Britain and the U.S. say tracing the dictators’ fortunes — including that of Gaddafi, who is still in power — is just the first daunting challenge. Most countries require those trying to recover stolen assets to identify the people who have hidden money, jewels or other riches and where the assets are. “You cannot just go on a fishing expedition,” says Lawson. “You have to know what you are looking for.”

Government officials in Egypt, Tunisia and rebel-held eastern Libya are scrambling to piece together the puzzle of their leaders’ wealth in order to submit the raft of documents required by foreign banks. Their work is greatly complicated by the reluctance of most public servants and other sources to divulge details, which could land them in jail for years, depending on who ends up in power. Since only a few officials know where to look, there is pressure to find the assets quickly. “The risk in cases like these is that nobody knows where the money is and that people die and the documents are never recovered,” says Pierre Schifferli, a Geneva attorney who helped recover billions embezzled by Nigerian President Sani Abacha and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos. “Marcos’ money was so well hidden that not even his family members knew where it was,” Schifferli says. “It’s like hiding 30 Easter eggs in the garden, and the kids find 28 of them. For a long time you will think, ‘Where the heck are the other two?'”

A quarter-century later, Mubarak, Ben Ali and Gaddafi are believed to have deposited assets in dozens of countries, including the Gulf states and elsewhere in Asia, where governments have been slow to help trace them. Wealth left at home is an easier target. Tunisian investigators have uncovered hoards of jewels and cash in Ben Ali’s palaces, while Libya’s central-bank governor, Farhat Bengdara, who defected in March, estimates that Gaddafi keeps about $500 million in cash in Tripoli, as well as about 155 tons of gold bars, worth about $7.5 billion.

Tracing the missing funds is Step 1. Government officials in Egypt and Tunisia and, if Gaddafi is one day ousted, Libya will then have to prove in court, both at home and in countries where the missing funds are, that the wealth was illegally obtained. “It is not a crime to be wealthy and to have a political role,” says Daniel Thelesklaf, co-executive director of the Basel Institute on Governance in Switzerland, who flew to Cairo in May to advise officials on how to try to recover the Mubarak regime’s fortunes. The Ministers of Tourism and the Interior under Mubarak have already been convicted of stealing public funds and are serving long prison terms. Mubarak’s Finance Minister, Youssef Boutros-Ghali, fled Egypt to avoid the same fate, but in early July he was acquitted of squandering public funds. Other cases could be more difficult to prove, since so many officials were also major businessmen. “The picture is never black and white,” Thelesklaf says. Egyptians say corruption has long pervaded their daily lives and that they still grease palms in order to park a car, rent an apartment or renew a passport. But the multibillion- dollar corruption within the regime’s top ranks was more opaque.

Indeed, for those with political connections, there were fortunes to be made during the 1990s and 2000s. As Egypt, Tunisia and Libya began privatizing their state-run economies and opening to Western investment, partly in response to World Bank and IMF demands, there was a frenzy of dealmaking on everything from land to energy, power plants to mobile-phone licenses, with assets hurriedly bought, sold and then resold without tenders. In Tunisia, Ben Ali’s in-laws, the Trabelsi clan, ultimately came to control much of the economy by acquiring hugely lucrative multinational subsidiaries, like Toyota dealerships, Carrefour supermarkets and the Orange telecom company, at very low cost.

In Cairo, Ahmed el-Sayed el-Naggar of the Center for Political and Strategic Studies for the government-owned Al-Ahram newspaper, spent years documenting how Mubarak’s political associates bought public assets in no-bid deals at fire-sale prices, then resold them for profits in the hundreds of millions of dollars. In 2000, Mubarak’s close aide Ahmed Ezz, who is now in detention on corruption charges, was allowed to buy a large tract of land near the Gulf of Suez for just $16 per sq m on the condition that he build a factory there. He built a metalworks, which he still owns, then sold the land within months to a Kuwaiti company, making about $37 million in profit. “Nobody wanted to put any obstacles in the way of privatization,” el-Naggar says. “Not a single deal was correct.”

The Arab revolutions could change all that. In Egypt, dozens of officials face charges of abusing their power in making huge profits. On May 24, Mubarak and his sons Alaa and Gamal were indicted on corruption charges. Tunisian officials have frozen assets of 110 members of Ben Ali’s regime as well as numerous Trabelsi relatives. Libya’s sovereign-wealth fund, valued at more than $50 billion last year, has been frozen under U.N. sanctions. U.N. investigators are probing whether member states have in fact frozen the assets in the fund, but their task is complicated, since the fund’s investments were scattershot and its record keeping erratic, according to KPMG, which the Libyan government hired early last year to try to organize the fund’s management. Shortly before the global economic meltdown in 2008, the fund invested more than $2.3 billion with Goldman Sachs and lost about 98% of the money once the crisis hit.

In mid-May, three months after Mubarak was driven from power, an Egyptian judge finally annulled the 2006 sale of the Omar Effendi department stores, ruling that the deal had been fraudulent. For Abdel-Hady, the ministry official who recounted being ordered to sign the sale documents, it was a personal vindication. Egyptian authorities are looking into whether then Minister of Investment Mahmoud Mohieldin — who is now managing director of the World Bank in Washington — violated any laws in the flurry of deals under his watch, including that of the Omar Effendi department stores. To the millions struggling to find jobs and make a living in a deeply unequal society, bringing back their countries’ lost billions is not only a matter of justice. It would signify that their revolution has been a success. That’s a victory the Arab world may have to wait years for.

Read this story on TIME Magazine.