When Egypt went to work to establish the credibility of its repressive government in Washington, it had help from the United Arab Emirates Ambassador to the United States, Yousef Al Otaiba.
Emails obtained by The Intercept show that Otaiba and the UAE essentially picked up the tab for Egypt’s lobbyists in Washington, D.C.
Egypt in 2013 enlisted the Glover Park Group, a top D.C. public relations and lobbying firm founded by former Clinton White House and Democratic Party officials, to be one of its public faces in the U.S. capital.
In a September 2015 memo to Otaiba, GPG described its work for Egypt as designed to influence both the U.S. government and the “echo chamber” of Washington think tanks and news media in order to influence American policy. The email exchanges provided to The Intercept were discovered in a cache of correspondence pilfered from Otaiba’s Hotmail account, which he used regularly for official business.
Earlier that year, Richard Mintz of the Harbour Group, a firm that has long worked as a lobbyist for the UAE, wrote an email to Otaiba listing GPG’s outstanding bill on the Egypt file — a whopping $2,735,343. GPG is no stranger to the Harbour Group — GPG’s Managing Director Joel Johnson co-founded the Harbour Group in 2001 and worked there until joining GPG in 2005.
Mintz noted to Otaiba that GPG would “like to get paid directly by UAE. But they are still waiting on a final opinion from the FARA [Foreign Agents Registration Act] lawyers to see if it’s possible.” Mintz, who is Otaiba’s public relations adviser, did not respond to requests for comment.
Six months later, Otaiba wrote to Johnson, informing him that the UAE had transferred $2.7 million to Cairo, the bulk of the $3 million payment Egypt later made to the lobbying firm. As of this writing, GPG has not returned multiple requests for comment about the UAE’s role in paying for the firm’s Egypt lobbying.
The emails obtained by The Intercept also show Otaiba lecturing journalists and think tank staffers on the benefits of repressive leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s rule, acting as a sort of de facto second ambassador for the country.
Sisi, as chief general of the Egyptian army, led a 2013 coup against then-President Mohamed Morsi. The military man was elected president with 97 percent of the vote in a 2014 election that was largely decried as undemocratic. The UAE and Saudi Arabia were chief backers of the military takeover, providing billions of dollars in support to Egypt.
When Politico’s Michael Crowley penned a piece titled “Trump to welcome Egypt’s dictator” in April 2017 with quotes from human rights experts about Sisi’s brutal crackdown, Otaiba wrote him an email accusing him of having “something against Sisi,” despite being “one of the smartest and most thoughtful journalists in the business.”
He specifically objected to Crowley’s citation of Tom Malinowski, a former Obama administration diplomat who also served as Human Rights Watch’s Washington director from 2001 to 2013. (Human Rights Watch has issued several damning reports about Egypt in recent years, including one that called for an investigation into Sisi’s role in the 2013 mass killings of more than 1,000 protesters in what “probably amounts to crimes against humanity.” Sisi was Egypt’s minister of defense at the time of the killings.)
Crowley pushed back, warning that Sisi’s crackdowns against Egyptian civil society could produce more radicalization. The two went back and forth, and when they concluded, Otaiba forwarded the email chain to U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Dina Powell. “FYI. This is generally what we’re up against,” he wrote. Crowley declined to comment on his exchanges with Otaiba.
In the think-tank world, Otaiba found at least one ally sympathetic to the UAE’s line on Egypt: Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress. Days after Sisi met with President Donald Trump in Washington, Katulis offered the ambassador a detailed Egypt lobbying agenda to present to the White House through Powell.
In that April 2017 correspondence, Katulis advised Otaiba that the Trump administration would likely ask Egypt to make security and counterterrorism a “top priority” and would seek dialogue on trade and investment. The U.S. administration would also likely ask Egypt to release some political prisoners, who had become “unnecessary distraction from the important work,” Katulis noted. (Two weeks later, the Egyptian government released Aya Hijazi, an Egyptian-American aid worker accused of child abuse and human trafficking, from custody after three years of detention. Hijazi’s case was typical of Sisi’s crackdown on aid groups.)
Katulis also suggested the UAE ask the Trump administration to appoint a U.S. ambassador to Egypt, preferably someone the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and Powell trust, suggesting the Washington Institute for Near East Peace’s Eric Trager because of his strong rapport with Egypt. Finally, Katulis suggested that the UAE ask the White House to appoint a staffer to deal with dissidents in Congress, as there is “bipartisan pushback on Egypt — a concerted Hill outreach won’t kill that, but it can help navigate it.”
The CAP fellow ended his note by telling Otaiba that Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis trusts him and suggested that the ambassador introduce Katulis to Powell.
CAP (where I worked from 2009 to 2012) is a Democratic Party-aligned think tank that is among the most critical of Trump. Yet Katulis’s pointers to Otaiba, who recently pledged $700,000 to the think tank, depart from Democrats’ typical stance on U.S. policy toward Egypt. Since Sisi assumed power, Democrats have maintained a practical approach on relations with Egypt, emphasizing the country’s regional importance for U.S. national security while consistently criticizing the Sisi regime for its human rights abuses. Former President Barack Obama never invited Sisi to the White House.
But while Katulis was sympathetic to Otaiba’s position on Egypt, others pushed back. Reagan and Bush administration alumnus Elliott Abrams, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, testified about Egypt at a Capitol Hill hearing in April. The day before his testimony, Otaiba lobbied Abrams, telling him that “the trump approach with sisi is working.”
Abrams wasn’t convinced, saying Sisi had “created a jihadi manufacturing plant” through his suppression of dissent.
In the emails with Abrams, Otaiba embraced his role as Sisi’s lawyer. He told Abrams in a July 2016 email that American ally and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan makes “Sisi look like a teddy bear.” Abrams, unimpressed by the comparison, replied, “Therefore what, though? That we should make believe Sisi is not twice as repressive as Mubarak ever was?” Undeterred, Otaiba replied that “Erdogan gets a pass because of nato. While sisi gets beat up by everyone.” Abrams did not respond to a request for comment.
Brookings Institute Executive Vice President Martin Indyk, who served as a special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations under the Obama administration, also sparred with Otaiba about his beliefs about democracy.
“I can make a strong case why the region as it is today, is not ready for US style democracy,” Otaiba wrote to Indyk in February 2016.
Indyk pushed back, saying that he can “also make a strong case that Sisi-style suppression is bad for the region.”
Otaiba was not convinced, responding that “I’m not against democracy. But I think democracy as a cure all solution to our problems is naive.”
Indyk then joked, “Bring back the Pharoahs!”
Otaiba replied, “The pharoahs and king Farouk we’re egypt’s best days. Two non democratic systems.”
The Brookings executive’s tone turned serious again, telling Otaiba, “People yearn to be free yusuf. They also yearn to be secure. Finding the balance is the test of leadership. But one without the other is unsustainable.”
“Agreed,” Otaiba conceded. “But we have proven that good leadership delivers good governance and security does not necessarily require democracy.”
Indyk declined to comment on the exchange to The Intercept, citing the private nature of the conversation with Otaiba.
Update: October 6, 2017
Allison Preiss, a spokeswoman for CAP, said in a statement that the “article inaccurately describes the Center’s position on Egypt and ignores its strong criticisms of human rights trends in Egypt and recommendations for U.S. policy in its research,” offering the following examples:
In its most recent report, “Setting New Terms for U.S.-Egypt Relations,” published in February 2017, the Center’s team argued: “For the United States, one reason that Egypt’s repression represents a strategic liability is because it undermines long-term efforts to defeat violent extremists in the battle of ideas. For reasons both moral and strategic, the new U.S. presidential administration should expend some of its political capital with Cairo by encouraging tangible progress on opening Egypt’s forcibly narrowed public sphere and implementing good governance reforms and continuing to raise, publicly and privately, issues regarding the rights of Egyptian citizens. Congress should ensure that these issues remain on the bilateral agenda. Abandoning them is shortsighted.”
Later in the report, the authors wrote: “By many accounts, Egypt is in the midst of the broadest and most intense crackdown against political dissent since the 1960s. Even activists who supported Morsi’s ouster have been exiled, jailed, put on trial, or intimidated off the political stage. Given the Egyptian state’s weakness in providing services to its people, repression, and the forcible narrowing of the space available to civil society makes Egypt’s revival harder. As one writer interviewed by the authors explained, “There is a fear that criticism in art and cartoons could lead to demonstration.” At the same time, Egyptians are fed conspiracies in which foreign powers seek to undermine Egypt from within. The murder of Italian student Giulio Regeni illustrates how xenophobia and brutality cannot be compartmentalized from Egypt’s other challenges—and ultimately can undermine Egypt’s tourist industry and foreign investment.
An op-ed published in Politico after the report’s release, the report’s authors wrote: “But to achieve results in the fight against terrorists, Trump must also address Egypt’s political repression and its treatment of its citizens in detention. Restrictions on basic freedoms constrain the space for a genuine battle of ideas essential in defeating extremism and in enhancing Egypt’s prospects to reemerge as a regional bulwark against sectarianism, terrorism and proxy wars. If Trump wishes to win broader support for his approach, he would be wise to quietly seek the release of Aya Hegazy, an American citizen who has been detained without trial on preposterous trumped-up charges for almost three years, and a resolution of other outstanding legal cases against Egyptian-Americans.”
Two days after that, Brian authored an op-ed for Fortune compared Trump to a Middle East dictator like Sisi. “When Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi met with U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington on Monday, I couldn’t help thinking about how Trump’s presidency increasingly resembles a Middle East autocracy. That was further reinforced when Trump said of Sisi, “We agree on so many things.”
In January 2015, the Center’s report, “New Anchors for U.S. Egypt Relations,” the Center’s team warned about the political repression under President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi and argued that “If the Sisi government continues down the path of closing off political space and failing to respect basic freedoms, the United States and other countries will find it difficult to maintain positive ties, let alone build a new foundation for relations with Egypt.”
After the military coup in 2013 in Egypt, the Center underscored the impact that political repression was having on accelerating radicalization and extremism in Egypt in its March 2014 report, “Fragmenting Under Pressure.” It argued that the Obama administration should place an emphasis on greater respect for basic rights and freedoms in its policy with Egypt.
The Center has consistently called for U.S. policy to support an emphasis on respect for human rights and an open political space in Egypt. Furthermore, independent research is central to the mission of the Center for American Progress. The Center’s supporters do not dictate our positions, and the Center retains complete control over the direction of its work.
Correction: October 6, 2017
This story originally reported that Katulis had not responded to a request for comment. That request had not been sent.