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Lobbyists Ride Out Regime Change in Egypt

But Foreign Clients Can Make Difficult Partners for U.S. Lobbying Firms

Correction Appended

The government of Egypt has fallen, but its lobbyists in the U.S. soldier on.

K Street firms hired to lobby for the turbulent nation have remained active even after the collapse of the regime, due in part to their long-standing ties to the Egyptian military now running the country.

The lobbyists have been under contract to the Defense Ministry for years.

Even after the government of President Hosni Mubarak collapsed under a popular uprising, the principals of the PLM Group, a joint lobbying venture, continue to meet with Egyptian officials in Washington, D.C., and lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

“We’re busier than ever,” said former Rep. Toby Moffett (D-Conn.), who is chairman of the Moffett Group, which is part of the three-firm lobbying partnership.

Moffett said he attended a two-hour meeting Monday at the Egyptian embassy. It also included other PLM lobbyists Tony Podesta, president of the Podesta Group, and former Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), who chairs the Livingston Group.

The lobbyists also had a meeting scheduled Tuesday with the Egyptian military attache in Washington. Moffett said he spent six hours on Capitol Hill at the beginning of the week and has been fielding questions from lawmakers about the future of the Egyptian government.

While the unfolding events in the Middle East have created a sense of uncertainty about the future of U.S.-Egyptian ties, the lobbying relationship remains stable largely because the $1.1 million annual lobbying contract is not with the Egyptian president but with three Cabinet-level offices that remain in place.

The lobbyists have contracts with the Defense Ministry, the Foreign Ministry and the International Cooperation Ministry.

The Egyptian military has a vested interest in the country’s relationship with the U.S. because of the vast amount of American military aid it receives, experts said. Over the years, the Defense Ministry has cultivated key relationships here, including with two lobbyists, William “Skip” Miner and Curtis Silvers, who now work as subcontractors to the PLM Group.

But lobbying relationships can quickly sour when governments change.

Tunisia, where protesters also ousted the government recently, does not have a registered lobbyist in Washington, but it had a public relations contract with the Washington Media Group.

Gregory Vistica, the president of Washington Media Group, said his firm ended its PR contract with Tunisia a week before President Ben Ali fled the country following widespread protests.

“We just couldn’t work for a client that was shooting people from the rooftops in Tunis and was violating civil rights with such abuse,” Vistica said. In a Jan. 6 termination letter to Samir Abidi, minister of communications in Tunisia, Vistica said his firm “had demonstrably improved the online perception of your government.” However, he wrote, “it has been and remains our view that improving your nation’s image in the U.S. or elsewhere can only be accomplished if the reputation sought is consistent with the facts ‘on the ground.’” 

But Egypt has a much deeper relationship with the U.S. than Tunisia does, with substantial military and economic aid at stake as well as its key role in ongoing peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

“The Egyptians are very sophisticated at promoting their own interests in Washington,” Graeme Bannerman said. His firm lobbied for the Egyptian government from 1990 until 2007, when he gave up the account and PLM was awarded the contract.

Miner and Silvers worked with Bannerman on the Egypt account, and Bannerman said both men, now partners at Vanguard Government Strategies, were on a friendly basis with many in the Egyptian military.

While neither Miner nor Silvers would comment on their role in lobbying Egypt, records filed under the Foreign Agents Registration Act show they have been active in the past year in lobbying key U.S. military officials as well as lawmakers.

For example, last November Miner spoke by telephone with Maj. Jason Figueiredo, the Egypt desk officer for the U.S. Central Command, about the current status of U.S.-Egypt relations and security relations, according to his FARA reports. He also had a phone conversation that month on the same topic with Lt. Col. Jed McCray, the Middle East desk officer for the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

PLM lobbyists also spent much of last fall working to defeat a proposed Senate resolution that called on Mubarak to lift a state of emergency, hold free and fair elections, and end harassment of media professionals and human rights activists. The resolution, by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and then-Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), never came up for a vote.

Records show that the PLM lobbying team made numerous contacts with lawmakers’ offices on the resolution. Livingston, for example, reached out to the offices of Sens. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), David Vitter (R-La.), Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.). 

Last year, lobbyists for Egypt reported making 366 contacts in Washington, the third-most-reported lobbying contacts among Arab countries’ lobbying firms, according to an analysis of FARA records by the Sunlight Foundation.

The two countries reporting more lobbying contracts were the United Arab Emirates, with 407, and Morocco, with 653. Lobbying for the UAE in 2010 were Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, DLA Piper, and the Harbour Group. The Moffett Group lobbied for Morocco.

Three other Arab governments also reported lobbying contacts in Washington last year. They were Algeria, with 50, Saudi Arabia, 20, and the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank, 19.

Bill Allison, an analyst for the Sunlight Foundation, said that often when there is a turnover in government, there is a change in lobbying teams. He cited the example of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, an ardent critic of the United States who fired the country’s U.S. lobbying team when he was elected.

Foreign relations experts said that while a change in lobbying teams often accompanies political upheaval, the situation in Egypt is different in part because much of the government has not really changed yet.

“For all practical purposes as it affects lobbying you haven’t had regime change yet,” said Anthony Cordesman, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

Allison said the same. The fact that PLM is still advocating on behalf of Egypt is a sign that “the government is still operating the same as before,” he said.

A change in the lobbying team may occur if and when elections are held in Egypt as the military has promised, these observers said.

It is not unusual for foreign governments to fire their lobbying teams not only when there is a change in power but even when foreign leaders are angered at actions of the U.S. government.

Bannerman said the government of Tunisia fired his firm years ago over disputes stemming from differences from the Gulf War. 

“We told them the truth and that’s not what they wanted to hear,” Bannerman said.

Correction: Feb. 16, 2011

The article misstated the year Graeme Bannerman’s firm began representing Egypt. It was 1990.

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