CAIRO — Egyptian intelligence has hired two U.S. public relations firms in Washington to lobby on the country's behalf and boost its image, the first such engagements by the country's powerful security apparatus to be made public and a rare move by a foreign intelligence body.
Filings dated Jan. 28 and seen by The Associated Press on the Department of Justice website Sunday showed that the General Intelligence Service has hired public relations firms Weber Shandwick and Cassidy & Associates Inc. The registrations by one of Egypt's feared, competing intelligence agencies, known as the Mukhabarat, were released publicly to comply with the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) of 1938.
The contracts show that the companies will assist Egypt in promoting its "strategic partnership with the United States," highlighting its economic development, showcasing its civil society and publicizing Egypt's "leading role in managing regional risks" in agreements worth $1.8 million annually.
All points are issues President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's government is keen to portray in a positive light in its interactions with foreign powers, especially a key ally such as the United States that sends it some $1.3 billion in annual military aid.
"The Egyptian government believes its relationship with the U.S. has suffered due to bad public relations and not being able to communicate its narrative," said Mokhtar Awad, an analyst at George Washington University. "They've been investing more in this line of effort and it appears to be expanding."
In some areas, Cairo has a more flexible approach to its image, for example by overstating the number of refugees in the country tenfold in efforts to persuade European countries to send it more development and security aid to prevent illegal immigration across the Mediterranean. It also switches between playing down an extremist insurgency in the northern Sinai Peninsula and amplifying the danger, depending on which position is most useful at a given moment with domestic or foreign audiences.
FARA registrations are administered and enforced by U.S. counterespionage officials with the Department of Justice, and Egypt's move appears to be rare for a foreign government as most filings are made by diplomatic missions, trade or business initiatives, political groups or opposition.
The revelations come as the new administration of President Donald Trump is softening America's approach to authoritarian governments including Egypt's, which the State Department last week cataloged in its annual report on human rights abuses. Egypt says it faces a substantial terrorist threat and cannot be judged by Western standards, although it insists foreign tourists are safe.
"The most significant human rights problems were excessive use of force by security forces, deficiencies in due process, and the suppression of civil liberties," State said in its report, adding that abuses included "disappearances" as well as "unlawful killings and torture."
Egypt has yet to recover economically from its 2011 Arab Spring uprising that overthrew longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak, followed by the army's ouster of his freely elected successor, the divisive Islamist Mohammed Morsi, and it depends on foreign loans and assistance. Last week, Mubarak was effectively acquitted on charges of killing protesters, and could now be released from the informal house arrest he has lived under in recent years. Activists have described the acquittal as the final nail in the coffin for recent democratic aspirations in Egypt.
Since Morsi's 2013 overthrow, el-Sissi's government has waged a heavy crackdown on dissent, jailing thousands of people, mostly Islamists but also scores of secular and liberal activists, including some of those who led the 2011 uprising. The government has also banned all unauthorized public gatherings, and branded Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization.
Egypt's FARA filings for the lobbying work are two of several previously filed by Egyptian government agencies, although others are listed under ministries or agencies relating to trade, tourism, or business. For the latest two, under the heading "Branch or agency represented by the registrant," the filings denoted Egypt's "General Intelligence Service." The contracts are signed by Maj. Gen. Nasser Fahmy, on the lines marked out for Maj. Gen. Khaled Fawzy, who is the director general of General Intelligence.
The Weber Shandwick contract is worth at least $1.2 million annually, to be paid quarterly at $300,000 plus expenses, while the Cassidy & Associates one is for $600,000 per year, to be paid at $150,000 quarterly.
Egypt's FARA filings: https://www.fara.gov/docs/3911-Exhibit-AB-20170128-26.pdf and https://www.fara.gov/docs/6272-Exhibit-AB-20170128-3.pdf
Brian Rohan on Twitter at: www.twitter.com/brian_rohan
Brian Rohan, The Associated Press