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Rights group adds lobbying help to spotlight Egypt, Saudi abuses

Political prisoner advocacy group Freedom Initiative is deploying Washington lobbyists to amplify its message on the Hill.
The Freedom Initiative photo.

A prominent human rights organization in Washington has hired a pair of lobbying firms, a move aimed at putting Saudi Arabia and Egypt on lawmakers' agendas as frustration builds over the Biden administration’s handling of the two repressive governments. 

The Freedom Initiative, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates for political prisoners in the Middle East, has retained lobbyists from BakerHostetler and Neale Creek, according to newly filed disclosures. 

  • BakerHostetler will provide “US government advocacy for the release of political prisoners in the Arab world,” according to the filing.
  • Neale Creek’s Andrew King will “educate policymakers on the importance of human rights, with a specific focus on political prisoners who have been wrongly detained,” the disclosure said.
  • King’s lobbying for the Freedom Initiative is noteworthy, as the former deputy chief of staff to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) previously represented Saudi Arabia and Egypt.  

Some background: Saudi Arabia and Egypt went on a K Street hiring spree after Biden's 2020 win forecasted a chillier reception for them in Washington. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry signed lobbying powerhouse Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck on a $65,000-a-month retainer, and both Cairo and Riyadh are now repped by Brownstein’s Ed Royce, the former Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.  

“Part of our strategy is to say we have access to those same tools,” the Freedom Initiative’s executive director Andrea Prasow said of her organization’s lobbying push. 

“It’s not just the number of meetings you get, it’s the message,” she added. “But we can play that game of getting meetings.” 

Why it matters: Since coming into office, President Joe Biden has drawn criticism from human rights advocates and some members of Congress for continued arms sales to the two countries, and in the case of Egypt, the release of security assistance that Congress had restricted over human rights. 

The administration has been forced to balance its campaign promise of a human rights-based foreign policy with strategic concerns in the Middle East, for which the United States has relied on Egypt as a mediator between Israel and Hamas and Saudi Arabia to end the war in Yemen. 

With the lobbying help, the Freedom Initiative is targeting lawmakers who have oversight roles for arms transfers and human rights issues, and in particular congressional Republicans, who are favored to reclaim the House in the approaching midterms. 

“We’re trying to talk to them using language they understand, using interlocutors they know,” Prasow said. “Human rights and the defense of political prisoners is a nonpartisan issue, but we live in a polarized partisan environment, so sometimes it can be perceived that way.” 

What's the latest: The hires come as human rights campaigners brace to lose several key advocates in Congress. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), whose “Leahy laws” prevent the supply of US military assistance to rights-violating security forces, will not seek re-election in 2022. 

Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), who co-leads the Egypt Human Rights Caucus and was the State Department’s top rights official in the Obama administration, faces an uphill battle in his newly redrawn district. 

Know more: Earlier this month, the administration denied Egypt 10% of its $1.3 billion in annual military assistance after the country failed to satisfy conditions that included releasing some political prisoners and ending a long-running investigation into civil society. Read why the aid cut was seen by rights groups as insufficient.

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