Michael Wahid Hanna, an Egypt expert at the Century Foundation, said that Weber Shandwick’s influence would likely be limited, since many power players in Washington already have set opinions on the U.S.-Egypt alliance. “They aren’t going to sway someone like McCain, Leahy, or Graham,” some of Egypt’s harshest critics in the U.S. Senate.
But Weber remains dogged in its mission. It also produced a video recapping the visit, which boasts of meetings with 15 lawmakers where, in the words of Egyptian MP Ahmed Youssef, the Egyptians presented a message of unity. “Let us unite and be hand in hand in the face of terrorism,” he said. Another member of the delegation, MP Dalia Youssef, said the delegation was focused on pushing back against “misperceptions” about what’s really going on in Egypt. The Egyptian embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
One of those misperceptions, according to think tankers who met with the delegation but wished to remain anonymous, concerned a recent law regulating Egyptian NGOs. The measure empowers the GIS—Weber Shandwick’s client—to help shut down foreign-funded human rights NGOs. It establishes “the creation of a regulatory body comprised of members of the General Intelligence Service, as well as representatives from the Ministries of Defense, Interior, and Judiciary, among others.” The Egyptian delegation, along with the Weber Shandwick website and materials, characterized the NGO law as a run-of-the-mill regulation. But according to Human Rights Watch, it would “effectively prohibit independent non-governmental groups.” Amnesty International said it would “annihilate human rights groups.”
What is most notable about Weber Shandwick’s emergence on the scene, Hanna and other longtime Egypt-watchers say, is its decision to work directly with Egyptian intelligence. Historically, the mukhabarat has preferred to stay out of the limelight, as Owen Sirrs, a former Egypt analyst at the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, and the author of a history of Egypt’s secret police, told me. That’s helped keep the extent of the GIS’s human-rights abuses a mystery. Although the U.S. aid program doesn’t benefit the GIS directly, viewed through a certain lens, the United States is paying indirectly for the PR firm’s services. “When you’re being electrocuted and tortured, you never know if it’s the GIS, or some other Egyptian intelligence service” Sirrs said. “I was never able to get a full picture on what the CIA gave [EGIS] each year in and year out, but there’s a reason they have a nice shiny headquarters,” he added. “The great irony here is that U.S.-taxpayer money [is] being funneled through Egypt’s notorious secret police, and then recycled back in the hands of lobbyists … [all] to spruce up Egypt’s image in D.C.”
That GIS has emerged from the shadows seemingly to quarterback Egypt’s lobbying efforts “reflects which institutions are ascendant back home,” Hanna said. Indeed Sisi has been moving to consolidate more and more Egyptian institutions—including parliament and the media—within the security apparatus’ orbit. Investigative reporters in Egypt have detailed how the country’s intelligence agencies played an outsize role in recruiting candidates for the pro-Sisi parties in the Egyptian parliament, and provided money to businessmen buying up Egyptian media companies. And civilian institutions like the foreign ministry are finding themselves sidelined, as intelligence officers are increasingly taking up diplomatic roles. Since Sisi took power, over 40 career diplomats have been reassigned at the urging of intelligence officials, the Egyptian investigative website MadaMasr reported.