By Jack Detsch September 13, 2018
Egypt has parted ways with Washington image-shapers just as the country could use a makeover.
Three public relations firms have quit a million-dollar deal with the country’s notorious intelligence service after a little more than a year amid a drumbeat of criticism over human rights abuses. Congress, meanwhile, has been tightening the screws, tying US assistance to progress on human rights and compensation for a US citizen wounded in an errant military strike three years ago.
Egypt’s General Intelligence Service (GIS) first hired Weber Shandwick for $100,000 per month in January 2017 to help promote its alliance with the United States, lobbying records indicate. But the New York-based PR giant turned over the contract to APCO Worldwide that July, less than three weeks after The Atlantic published an expose on its work, after pocketing $1.195 million. The firm said it dropped the Egypt contract after deciding to stop representing foreign governments.
Likewise, Washington-based APCO ended its contract with Egyptian intelligence this April after the anti-poverty nonprofit Global Citizen cut ties with the firm over Egypt’s crackdown on gay rights activists. APCO, which was paid a total of $821,000 from GIS, defended its work for Egypt in an interview with PR Week and said its contract only ran through the March elections.
And in April, the GIS ended its contract with Cassidy and Associates, a former Weber Shandwick subsidiary that was hired at the same time as its parent company and has since decided to go its separate way. The Egyptian government paid Cassidy $631,000 last year, according to a review of lobbying disclosure forms by Al-Monitor.
“They’re not relying on PR because they’re relying on their allies that have sway with the US,” said Nancy Okail, the executive director of the nonprofit Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington, which advocates for democratic progress in the Middle East. “Those PR firms are frustrated by the Egyptian government because their advice is never followed.”
Meanwhile, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry’s 4-year-old partnership with the Glover Park Group seems to be running strong. The ministry paid the firm $2.5 million last year, up from $1.75 million in 2016. All told, the Egyptian government spent $5.2 million on lobbying and public relations in Washington last year, up from $1.75 million in 2016.
The game of PR musical chairs comes as Washington continues to have mixed feelings about President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The Egyptian leader sailed to re-election with 97% of the vote in March after sidelining all serious challengers, but retains US support for his stance against terrorism and for friendly ties with Israel.
President Donald Trump called Sisi the day the election results were announced to congratulate him, even as the State Department “noted reports of constraints on freedoms of expression and association in the run-up to the elections.” Four months later, the administration released $195 million in military aid that was blocked last year amid concerns over Egypt's human rights record and its relationship with North Korea. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released another $195 million in military aid last month, Al-Monitor first reported.
Meanwhile, the administration’s aid request for Fiscal Year 2019 seeks to maintain $1.3 billion in military assistance while slashing economic aid by a third, down to $75 million.
In Congress, House appropriators continue to champion Cairo with a push to provide $1.3 billion in military aid and $150 million in economic assistance for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. The more critical Senate wants to cut those two amounts down to $1 billion and $75 million, respectively.
Though lawmakers are divided on potential Egypt aid cuts, for the first time this year, both chambers are pressing Cairo to provide compensation for April Corley, a US citizen who was grievously wounded three years ago when Egyptian pilots flying US helicopter gunships bombed a party of mostly Mexican tourists in the country’s Western Desert, killing 12. Corley’s case is championed by Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Senate spending panel, who has been holding up $105 million in military aid since May until Cairo helps pay her medical bills, releases American prisoners and drops indictments against 43 nongovernmental organization (NGO) workers, among other conditions.
In response, Egypt watchers say the country has doubled down on efforts to get influential US observers outside the government to temper their criticism. Until recently, former GIS chief Khaled Fawzy, who was replaced in January, and other intelligence officials had become a fixture in Washington, three sources with knowledge of the situation told Al-Monitor.
“It was evident over the past year or so that they were taking over jobs that were possibly the role of the Foreign Ministry,” said Michele Dunne, the director of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Gen. Fawzy appeared to be actively working on issues that were a source of tension, including the NGO case.”
One particular target has been the bipartisan Working Group on Egypt, an informal gathering of veterans of the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations that periodically calls on the White House to take a harder line on Cairo. Fawzy himself approached members of several think tanks in an ultimately fruitless quest to tamp down criticism of Egypt’s crackdown on US-backed NGOs.
“They believe that there essentially was a cabal against Egypt inside the group and outside of the group,” said Andrew Miller, a former National Security Council director for Egypt. “If they could convince people to stop publishing, the criticism would die down.”
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