Egypt, the Gulf and Washington’s looking glass lobbying distortions

Egypt, the Gulf and Washington’s looking glass lobbying distortions
6 min read
05 Jan, 2015
Lobbying by and on behalf of Egypt’s regime looks to have been successful. Once Obama leaves office, talk of Egyptian democracy will have been confined to a distant past, the odd voice in the wilderness notwithstanding.
A vulture on K-Street. Washington's K-Street is the traditional address for America's lobbying companies (Getty)

In May 2011, Judith Miller wrote an angry column in the New York Post.

“Since Mubarak’s ouster, the transitional military council ruling Egypt has allowed Salafists to attack Copts with impunity,” Miller said. Apparently unimpressed with Egypt’s military, she quoted a US expert as saying that liberal reformers increasingly fear that Salafists “are emerging with the military’s blessing – perhaps in an alliance to enable the military to continue ruling or to block the emergence of a truly democratic government”.

     Cairo’s officers would topple Morsi under the guise of popular revolt ... The Gulf, for its part, would take care of Washington.

Three years later, Miller – the self-styled proponent of Egyptian democracy and opponent of the military – was sitting in Cairo in what she described “a rare, two-hour meeting” between “a small group of American national security specialists and journalists” and then “Egypt’s de facto ruler” General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Miller reported on Fox News website that Sisi “repeatedly stressed Egypt’s desire for strong ties with, and support from, Washington”.

A month after her shift from bashing Egypt’s military to praising it, Miller penned another piece for Fox News – probably using her notes from that same meeting with Sisi but this time referring to him as “senior Egyptian officials” – in which she said that these “officials” described Egyptian-Israeli cooperation as “excellent” and “never better”.

Miller, a known supporter of Israel, it now seemed was trying to give Sisi and his junta the Israeli seal of approval.

But what changed? What made Miller turn from an advocate of democracy in Egypt into a cheerleader for the military?

When Egyptians took to the street en masse to demand the toppling of former President Hosni Mubarak, the pro-Mubarak lobby in Washington was caught off guard. Mubarak’s Arab Gulf supporters hastily deployed their public relations assets in a bid to make Washington speak against the revolution.

Wielding the lobby weapon

Former US Ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner, a lobbyist with Paton Boggs whose documents show frequent contacts between Wisner and the government of the United Arab Emirates, volunteered to mediate between Washington and Mubarak.

(In 2013, it may be worth pointing out, the UAE outspent all other foreign nations in lobbying in Washington, paying over $14 million. Saudi Arabia came fourth with $11 million. Qatar spent a meagre $350,000, ranking close to the bottom, just above Thailand, which ranked 46th.)

After visiting Cairo in early 2011, Wisner said in Munich that transition in Egypt required Mubarak to stay “while we sort our way toward a future”, and encouraged the international community to play a “protective and encouraging role”.

President Barack Obama’s administration instantly distanced itself from the former diplomat, saying that while it had sent a message to Mubarak with Wisner, the former ambassador’s public statements did not reflect Washington’s position that clearly supported the revolution.

It later transpired that – while US officials positioned themselves as champions of democracy – they had in fact taken their position after close consultation with the Egyptian military establishment, which had in turn forced Mubarak to appoint Omar Suleiman as his vice-president. Suleiman got his short tenure for the single purpose of announcing Mubarak’s resignation. Cairo’s officers were calling the shots from behind the scenes, and had assured Washington that America’s interests would be safeguarded should Mubarak fall. Egypt’s military was, in effect, out of sync with Mubarak’s Gulf supporters.

But now that Egypt’s military had let the people break the government, they had to own it. This is when Washington leaned on Cairo’s officers to “share” government with other groups, mainly through the ballot box. With few allies, Egypt’s military had to listen to the US. Sisi was the first to join Mohamed Morsi’s government as Defence Minister, and took an oath of office before him.

Yet sharing power with an elected Muslim Brotherhood government proved unbearable for the military. Washington started treating Morsi as the actual ruler and even extended him an invitation to the White House in late 2012. That was when Egypt’s military broke ranks with its American partners, accused America of supporting Islamists, and went out shopping for new allies, which the Egyptian junta found among some Arab Gulf governments.

The plan of the Gulf and Egypt’s military was simple. Cairo’s officers would topple Morsi under the guise of popular revolt that was carefully planned by the military. The Gulf, for its part, would take care of Washington. Between late 2012 and mid-2013, lobbyists swarmed the American capital looking for journalists, think tankers and propagandists. This is when journalists like Miller, known for her erroneous reporting in the New York Times in 2002 on Saddam Hussein’s presumed weapons of mass destruction, abandoned Egypt’s democracy and found her solace in Sisi and the military.

Sisi and his Gulf sponsors were not satisfied with the Obama administration that found itself – under lobbying pressure – continuously and embarrassingly reversing its previous positions on Egypt. Obama eventually restricted his Egypt policy to three “core interests”: The security of Egypt’s border with Israel, continued navigation in the Suez Canal, and overflight rights for American military aircraft. Sisi delivered on all three.

A voice in the wilderness

Despite neutralising the Obama administration, Sisi wanted to mute every criticism in Washington. But not all journalists and think tankers could be “contacted” by lobbying firms.

Michelle Dunne, a former diplomat and one of Washington’s most respected experts on Egypt, had created the Rafik Hariri Center at the Atlantic Council with a donation from Bahaa Hariri, the son of Lebanon’s late prime minister. But after she signed a petition and testified before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee urging the United States to suspend military aid to Egypt, calling Mr. Morsi’s ouster a ‘military coup’, Bahaa Hariri called the Atlantic Council to complain, according to the New York Times.

Dunne was replaced by former Ambassador to Egypt Francis Ricciardone, “who had been earlier criticized by conservatives and human rights activists for being too deferential to the Mubarak government,” the Times reported.

Yet Dunne did not disappear. She went back to her job at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and continued criticizing Sisi and calling on Washington to suspend aid to his military to make him respect human rights.

After failing to suade or silence Dunne, Sisi’s sponsors were left with one option: To cut her from Egypt. By doing so, Sisi hoped to undermine Dunne’s credibility as an expert on the country. Dunne was invited to a conference in Egypt. When she reached Cairo’s airport, passport control stamped her passport and let her in, only to follow her shortly after and tell her that her “name [wa]s in the computer”. Dunne was told she could not access Egypt anymore and was put on a flight back to Washington.

“[M]y deportation is just the latest and least important of many steps toward an authoritarianism much nastier than that of the Mubarak era,” Dunne wrote in The Washington Post. “I am safely at home, but there are an increasing number of Egyptian rights activists, journalists and politicians who have been forced into exile in the past several months and may never be able to return, not to mention thousands of political detainees,” she concluded.

Perhaps Dunne is one of those analysts lobbyists cannot buy. Perhaps she is not the only one. And perhaps she will continue to speak her mind freely for Egypt’s democracy and against its emerging autocracy.

But in Washington, lobbying efforts by the Egyptian government and on its behalf can be expected to intensify over the coming two years. When Obama leaves the White House in 2017, and knowing how the American system works, there will be no bad blood left between Washington and Cairo. The US will then welcome Sisi back to the fold with open arms. Talk of Egyptian democracy will have been confined to a distant past. Any tension between the two countries might be remembered as a mere hiccup.