Tensions between Egypt’s FM and intelligence agencies play out in Washington

The contracting of a lobbying company in Washington DC and a PR firm in New York by Egypt’s intelligence agencies to promote the country’s image and role in the Middle East raises several questions.

The US Justice Department disclosed information about deals made between Egypt’s General Intelligence Services and Cassidy and Associates to the tune of US$50,000 a month, and Weber Shandwick for $100,000 dollars a month, amounting to $1.88 million annually, aside from operational costs and special missions.

The agreements were made on January 18, just two days before US President Donald Trump was sworn in to office. This means negotiations around the deal may have begun when Trump won the election on November 8, 2016, or even before. The timing could also be linked to Egypt’s securing of a deal with the IMF and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s upcoming Washington visit, which the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper reports will occur during the first week of April.

The deals garnered attention in political and media circles in the US, because Washington is not used to foreign intelligence services directly contracting US lobbying firms to undertake activities pertaining to improving the image of the country in question or helping it achieve its objectives.

It is also an unprecedented move for the Egyptian government, as the embassy in Washington is traditionally responsible for negotiating contracts on behalf of the government and representing Egypt in the US. Why contract two new companies, when there has been an agreement between the Egyptian government and the large lobbying firm Glover Park Group to the tune of US$3 million annually since October 2013, paid for by the UAE? Is it because this deal was signed under the Democrats not the Republicans in the US, or perhaps because Egypt wishes to expand its interests to include other companies?

The representative brokering the new deals on behalf of Egypt’s intelligence services is Major General Khaled Fawzy, the director general of the General Intelligence Services, with the agreements signed on his behalf by General Nasser Fahmy, in his capacity as director of administrative affairs at Egypt’s General Intelligence Services. The address listed on the agreements is the agency’s headquarters at Qobba Palace, on Matareya Street in Cairo.

According to US laws regulating the work of lobbying firms with foreign governments, all companies practicing in the US must give a copy of their financial contracts to the US Justice Department, as well as record and document all communication between US companies and foreign governments.

Are the new contracts an indication of escalating disagreements between Egypt’s FM and its General Intelligence Services?

Are Egypt’s intelligence services, which are used to a certain amount of discretion, familiar with US laws mandating public disclosure of the details of their deals in the US? Are they indifferent to such disclosure, or are they trying to send a message to the Egyptian presidency that the intelligence services are flexing their muscles in Washington and bypassing the Foreign Ministry?

And what will these firms actually do? Will they provide the Egyptian government with advice and services? Will they organize meetings with the US administration, media representatives, or members of Congress?

The news of the contracts also comes as the Egyptian government is calling on citizens to weather the storm of austerity, particularly with regards spending in foreign currencies. Cairo has additionally closed media offices in Washington and New York, claiming to save costs.

Where will the US$150,000 a month for the new contracts come from: the state budget or a third party, as with the Glover Park firm?

The truth is that, as long as the persecution of political opponents continues, as long as restrictions on freedoms persist, and newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post continue to condemn Egypt’s human rights record, there is a need for a PR spin in the US, even with a supportive administration in office.

A few months ago, I asked the new US Secretary of Defense General Mattis about the nature of the military relationship between Cairo and Washington. He stressed the need to support the Egyptian government, particularly in a period of turmoil in the region. And while the General called for the resumption of Operation Bright Star between Egyptian and US armies, he also stressed the need to change the nature of operations to focus on counter-terrorism training.

A few months from now, the US Department of Justice will publish details of activities and services undertaken by US companies in partnership with the Egyptian government, including electronic correspondence, phone calls, minutes of meetings, interviews with Egyptian officials, dissemination of press releases, propaganda campaigns and more. Will the Egyptian government follow suit before the media obtains details from the US Department of Justice?

Are the new contracts an indication of escalating disagreements between Egypt’s Foreign Ministry and the General Intelligence Services? Are we witnessing competition between authorities over the approval of the presidency? Is the intention of the intelligence services to demonstrate the narrow-mindedness and inefficiency of the Foreign Ministry in dealing with Washington? These are all questions that can be posed from Washington, but can only be answered, perhaps, in Cairo.

*Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that deals reached between Egypt’s General Intelligence Services and US lobbying firms amount to $1.88 billion annually. It has been amended to reflect that they amount to $1.88 million annually.

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Mohamed Elmenshawy