To commemorate Gay Pride month this past summer, Howard Pulchin, an executive at the giant public relations and lobbying firm APCO, published a somber essay on the company’s website. Pride “feels awfully different” this year, he wrote, alluding to a rising tide of anti-gay sentiment. News had broken of anti-gay pogroms in Chechnya. In Washington, President Donald Trump’s administration was rolling back protections for transgender students. “It feels more urgent and a bit less celebratory,” Pulchin wrote.
APCO Chief Executive Brad Staples weighed in, too: “The corporate world is taking a stand,” he wrote. “The next generation of young global citizens will ask a simple but difficult question: ‘Why did it take so long?’” To accompany these essays, APCO created a video and hashtag, #WhyPrideMatters, celebrating its queer employees.
Less than a month later, APCO took on a $1.2 million annual contract to work with Egypt’s notorious spy services, the General Intelligence Directorate, to promote the Egyptian government’s interests in D.C.
The contract with Egypt was an especially awkward fit for APCO, given the firm’s public association with gay rights causes.
The contract with Egypt was an especially awkward fit for APCO, given the firm’s public association with gay rights causes. Egypt has a long record of persecuting its LGBTQ citizens. Going back to the 1970s, Egyptian courts have interpreted anti-sodomy laws to target those deemed sexually subversive. Soon after APCO signed its deal with Cairo, police in Egypt launched an especially brutal crackdown, rounding up dozens of suspected gay people and subjecting some to forced anal probes.
Meanwhile, APCO quickly assembled an intercontinental 12-person team spanning the U.S., Europe, and Israel to work on behalf of the Egyptian government — including some who had appeared in the #WhyPrideMatters campaign, a former Republican operative, and a former Obama administration official. (Pulchin, Staples, and other APCO employees in the #WhyPrideMatters video are not registered on the Egypt account.)
While Egyptian police rounded up LGBTQ citizens, APCO got to work. The group ignored the crackdown and instead wrote and distributed flattering pamphlets praising the Egyptian government, reached out to influential American think tanks on Egypt’s behalf, tried to persuade American news outlets to write upbeat items about Egypt’s trajectory, and circulated positive news articles about Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi — whose public prosecutor, Nabil Sadek, spearheaded the attacks on gay Egyptians.
An APCO spokesperson insisted that the firm had “not been asked to, nor have we done any work involving LGBTQ issues” on the account. “The APCO global community does not condone, nor would we try to justify, specific policies or actions like those directed at the LGBTQ community,” Margery Kraus, APCO’s chair, told The Intercept in a statement.
Egypt’s gay rights activists, meanwhile, fought back best they could — they meticulously documented the abuse and tried to arrange legal defenses for those arrested. Karim, a coordinator with the Alliance of Egyptian Queer Organizations, found APCO’s professed commitment to gay rights deeply ironic — and its work on behalf of Egypt profoundly disturbing. Neither Karim, whose name is being withheld, nor the constituent members of the alliance, which sprung up in response to the crackdown, wanted their names used in this article, as Egyptian police are known to target any group that supports gay rights.
Karim had a simple message for groups like APCO: “You are helping them to abuse us.”
“You are helping them to abuse us.”
APCO took on the Egypt account in July, according to filings the firm made with the federal government. Egypt’s primary lobbying and PR firm, Weber Shandwick, had just dropped the account amid scrutiny over its role in obfuscating Egypt’s human rights record. Within weeks, APCO took advantage of the opportunity. Cassidy & Associates, a smaller lobbying shop, spun out of Weber Shandwick, stayed on the account as well.
APCO works for all sorts of clients — from massive corporations like Ikea, Sony, and eBay, to charitable campaigns like Empowering Africa Through Youth Leadership. The firm does work for governments with questionable human rights records as well, including a recent deal with the Turkish government and a controversial contract with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist accused of encouraging religious violence against Muslims. Nonetheless, APCO has branded itself as a righteous firm; just last week, the group boasted on Twitter about having won an award for its work on the #BetterThanThat campaign, a British government-backed effort to marshal opposition to hate crimes.
Although Cassidy & Associates has not taken overt public position in favor of gay rights, one of its vice presidents, Jesse Barba — a registered Egypt agent — has. In January 2016, Barba campaigned for Hillary Clinton, traveling to North Carolina to knock on doors ahead of the election. “I’m in a state with strong voter suppression laws, racially gerrymandered districts, and discriminatory LGBTQ laws,” he wrote on Facebook. “My candidate and my party need me.”
This year, Cassidy & Associates has worked on behalf of those enforcing discriminatory LGBTQ laws. Cassidy & Associates reached out to U.S. lawmakers nearly 100 times on behalf of Egypt over the past year, making contact with staffers for powerful senators, such as Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker, R-Tenn., Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, according to filings with the Department of Justice in accordance with the Foreign Agents Registration Act, a law that requires the disclosure of lobbying activities on behalf of foreign governments. Egypt paid Cassidy & Associates $50,000 a month for the service.
APCO handled the media side for Egypt. The group contacted major outlets to push positive stories, including the AP, Foreign Policy, NBC, and CNN. At the height of the gay rights crackdown in October, for example, APCO contacted the Wall Street Journal to emphasize, among other things, Egypt’s “shared values with the United States,” according to Justice Department filings.
Egypt is a major U.S. strategic ally and the second-largest recipient of U.S. military aid after Israel. Like many foreign governments, the Egyptians hire American public relations and lobbying firms to help ensure aid keeps flowing and burnish their global reputation. But APCO and Cassidy & Associates entered the scene at a particularly tense moment: In August, the Trump administration cut Egypt’s military assistance and delayed the delivery of some aid on human rights grounds. Meanwhile, at the United Nations, human rights officials have begun to express serious concern about Egypt’s treatment of gay citizens.
APCO denies anything untoward in its Egypt work. Instead, APCO focuses its messaging on threats to Egypt’s security and the country’s economic potential. “Enabling Egypt to be better understood in the context of the geo-political and terrorism threats it faces,” Kraus, the APCO’s chair, explained, “is the first step to providing the security needed to foster change in a very complex environment. We believe our work on behalf of the government and the people of Egypt does just that.”
“Our work with Egypt is about promoting the country and its broad potential in an inclusive way,” Kraus told The Intercept. “We believe that healthy discussion, dialogue, and inclusion in the global community is a better longer term path to change than isolation.”
Longtime Egypt watchers see a familiar pattern at work. “Egypt and its lobbyists go to huge lengths to put forth the narrative that the country deserves special treatment because of its terrorism threat and its alleged irreplaceable regional role,” said Amy Hawthorne, deputy director of the Project on Middle East Democracy and a former Egypt expert with the State Department. “But no amount of PR can change the reality inside Egypt, which is that this regime focuses on arresting and abusing gays and lesbians, peaceful dissidents, and others who have nothing to do with terrorism while the real terrorists killing Egyptians grow stronger.”
There’s solid evidence to back up Hawthorne’s analysis. Just three months after APCO took on the Egypt account, the human rights advocacy group Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights produced an exhaustive study demonstrating that, under Sisi, the rate at which gay citizens are being arrested has increased nearly fivefold compared to the years before he took power.
Scott Long, an activist who launched Human Rights Watch’s first program on LGBT rights in 2004, said that abuse is part of Sisi’s own cynical public relations strategy. The police round up homosexuals and then contact friendly journalists to place a positive story in the press. “The police got a great deal of favorable publicity by leaking the information, at a point when Sisi was trying to revive the presence and popularity of the police,” Long explained. “The regime has consistently been exploiting the arrests.”
Other human rights advocates said APCO has a responsibility to press Egypt on its record of brutality. “It’s despicable that Margery Kraus tries to distract from Sisi’s brazen persecution of the country’s vulnerable LGBT community by randomly blathering nonsense about ‘terrorism’ and ‘geopolitical context,’” said Human Rights Watch’s Middle East Director Sarah Leah Whitson. “Rather than trying to persuade her client to show a basic modicum of tolerance and humanity for Egypt’s citizens, she’s accepting payment to paper over their cruel mistreatment.”
— Hitham Alkashif (@HithamAlkashif) September 23, 2017
Since APCO and Cassidy & Associates signed contracts with Egypt, the police have engaged in what can fairly be described as a pogrom. In September, at a Cairo concert for the Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila, a group of Egyptians were photographed waving a rainbow flag. Within hours, Egyptian public prosecutor Nabil Sadek ordered the roundup of a half-dozen concert-goers suspected of participating in the flag-waving.
Over the next month, dozens of Egyptians suspected of being gay were arrested. Many were subjected to forced anal examinations that officials in Cairo said could prove they were gay. Amnesty International has described those “exams” as torture.
During the crackdown on LGBTQ Egyptians, APCO has been in charge of “media relations, stakeholder engagement, [and] social media services” for the Egyptian government in Washington, according to its filings with the Department of Justice. Cassidy & Associates, for its part, provides what the firm calls “government affairs services.” APCO’s team also helps with “strategic communications.”
The day Egypt’s public prosecutor launched the recent round of arrests, APCO’s operatives blasted out a story about Egypt’s impressively low inflation rate.
As part of that work, APCO firm operates the Twitter account and webpage associated with the brand #EgyptFwd, both clearinghouses for positive news about the Egyptian government. The day Egypt’s public prosecutor launched the recent round of arrests, APCO’s operatives blasted out a story about Egypt’s impressively low inflation rate. In the following days, while its client was rounding up gay people in Cairo, APCO shared a story about the first Egyptian player in the NBA and promoted American actor Forest Whitaker’s trip to the pyramids.
At the same time, APCO was busy putting Egyptian officials in touch with influential D.C. think tanks. The list of think tanks focused on pro-Israel outfits with a neoconservative bent, including the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Center for Security Policy — which has deep ties to the Trump administration and was labeled “conspiracy oriented” by the Southern Poverty Law Center. None of the think tanks responded to request for comment about what was discussed. APCO declined to elaborate as well.
As APCO connected Egyptian officials with America’s foreign policy elites, LGBTQ citizens in Cairo were being stalked online. Police used gay dating applications like Grindr to track down suspects. “They’re doing undercover jobs on the apps,” said Tarek, a 24-year-old gay man in Cairo, who asked that his real name be withheld out of concern for his safety. When the police raid a suspected gay hangout, “they would search their phones and if they find any app on their phone they would be arrested.” Officials with the Egyptian public prosecutor’s offices would then sometimes order the Forensic Medical Authority to conduct anal exams.
Over the last few years, the U.S. State Department, through its Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, or INL, has helped train Egypt’s public prosecutors and FMA officials. The State Department would not produce a list of the nearly 500 prosecutors — or FMA officials — who participated in the program and could not provide assurance that taxpayers hadn’t provided support for Egyptian law enforcement officials now involved in the alleged torture. “We have seen recent reports stating that in the past [Egyptian officials] performed anal exams on individuals accused of homosexual conduct,” an INL spokesperson acknowledged to The Intercept. “These reports are deeply troubling.” (The spokesperson said human rights vetting is not required for “non-security actors” but that the bureau takes available information into account when deciding who gets U.S.-funded training.)
“They hunted people from their homes,” said Tarek. Recently, he said, a gay friend killed himself out of fear that the police would out him to his family. Some gay Egyptians are fleeing Cairo to lay low in the countryside, he said, and others are afraid to go outside at all. “People are terrified and panicking.”
“This is sheer, utter hypocrisy. They are working for a regime that tortures trans and gay people, and trying to cleanse its image.”
APCO has long touted its support for gay rights causes in the U.S. In 2014, for example, the firm became a corporate sponsor of Live Out Loud, a New York-based group that “inspires, nurtures and empowers LGBTQ youth to build a successful future by connecting them to positive role models.” Now the Egypt contract could exact a cost on APCO’s work from gay rights advocacy groups. “It’s a little contradictory,” said Leo Preziosi, president of Live Out Loud, when asked about APCO’s deal with Egypt. APCO no longer sponsors his organization, and if the company were to try to renew ties, Preziosi said he would have to have “a really serious conversation” about APCO’s Egypt work with his board of directors and legal team.
Gay rights advocates who have worked abroad don’t hesitating to criticize APCO in harsh terms. “This is sheer, utter hypocrisy,” Long, the veteran LGBTQ rights activist, said of APCO’s work for Egypt. “They are working for a regime that tortures trans and gay people, and trying to cleanse its image.”
An APCO employee on the Egypt account, who asked to speak anonymously because they were not authorized to speak on the company’s behalf, emphasized that the firm had not asked its employees to explicitly address Egypt’s human rights record. The firm’s work, the employee said, was about strengthening the U.S.-Egypt relationship and drumming up foreign investment. “There’s no whitewashing,” the employee said. “I never heard anyone on the account say anything about gay rights.”
Egypt experts dismissed that tack as evasive. “One can just choose to ignore the elephant in the room — a massive human rights crackdown — and say, ‘We’re not going to talk about that,’” said Michele Dunne, a former State Department official and director of Carnegie’s Middle East Program. “But anyone discussing the situation in Egypt while willfully ignoring or eliminating from the picture the massive political repression and human rights abuse … they are participating in deliberately creating a distorted picture.”
As APCO and Cassidy & Associates remain narrowly focused on improving the U.S.-Egypt relationship, the Egyptian government is taking a multi-lateral approach to its crackdown on LGBTQ people. Not content with persecuting gay people at home, Egypt has recently tried to expand its reach outside its borders, said Jeremy Kadden, a senior international policy advocate at Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group.
This year, for example, Egypt has been trying to rally other African nations to undermine the mandate of the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity investigators at the United Nations. “At the U.N., they try to marginalize LGBTQ people. It’s a major focus of their work there in an almost bizarre fashion,” Kadden said. “They oppose resolutions on random topics, that happen to mention sexual orientation.” In October, Egyptian diplomats joined with Russia in a failed effort to strip pro-LGBTQ rights language from a U.N. resolution concerning the Olympic games.
APCO, meanwhile, was busy drumming up positive coverage of Egypt’s diplomacy. Sisi had recently spoken at the U.N. General Assembly and APCO created a pamphlet to promote the speech titled: “Sisi at UNGA — Fighting Terrorism and Keeping The Peace.” The document included a link to a cloying Fox News interview with the Egyptian leader. In it, news personality Sean Hannity repeatedly called Sisi “courageous,” both men praised Trump, and Hannity studiously steered clear of any human rights questions.
APCO didn’t limit itself to promoting Egyptians’ appearances on American television. Its Egypt team was also reaching out to sympathetic experts at D.C. think tanks in order to book them on Egyptian television shows aligned with Sisi’s government. APCO arranged for Jonathan Schanzer, a vice president at the neoconservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies, to be interviewed by Egyptian TV host Amr Adeeb. At the time, Adeeb had temporarily relocated his show to New York to promote Sisi’s U.N. visit. The TV personality has also echoed the government’s rhetoric during the anti-LGBTQ crackdown, calling queer people “extremists” and comparing them to rapists. The network that carries his show, OnTV, has been accused of firing journalists who don’t toe the government line.
Building a firewall between APCO’s work and Egypt’s human rights abuses is easier said than done, since the anti-LGBTQ crackdown involves multiple branches of the Egyptian government.
In October, Egypt’s Free Egyptians Party, which is the largest in Parliament and closely aligned with Sisi, introduced a law that would further criminalize homosexuality, as well as make it a crime to “encourage” homosexual activity or sell rainbow flags and other items associated with gay rights. Sixty-seven parliamentarians immediately endorsed the bill, causing human rights groups to sound the alarm. Shortly after the law was introduced, a delegation of Egyptian lawmakers — including Tarek Radwan, head of the foreign relations committee and a leading member of the Free Egyptians Party — traveled to Washington to hold meetings with American officials.
The delegation included the speaker of the Egyptian Parliament, Ali Abdel Aal, who was scheduled to meet with his counterparts, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Gay rights groups in Washington lobbied sympathetic lawmakers to raise the gay rights issue in the meeting and press Abdel Aal, who hadn’t taken a position on the new law, to come out against it. A Democratic aide with knowledge of the sit-down, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the details of the private meeting, said Pelosi directly raised the persecution of gay people in the meeting. She asked him to do what he could to reign the attacks in, the aide said, and handed him a letter directly criticizing Egypt’s LGBTQ crackdown.
Abdel Aal, the aide said, told Pelosi that Egypt’s police were only going after aggressive public displays of homosexual behavior. Pelosi pushed back by citing news reports about police using gay dating apps to target gay people — contradicting what the Egyptian parliamentarian had just told her. The foreign delegation responded to Pelosi by claiming Egypt is a “fledgling democracy,” the aide recalled, “that they need time to make adjustments.”
As Egypt’s courts followed through on the crackdown, APCO’s involvement with the Egyptian government continued to grow.
APCO washed its hands of the whole affair. A spokesperson told The Intercept that it had no involvement in setting up the meeting or in briefing Abdel Aal beforehand. Cassidy & Associates did not respond to request for comment.
It wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for APCO or Cassidy to take an active role in such a meeting. When a parliamentary delegation visited earlier in the year, the last Washington firm to hold the primary account to lobby for Egypt, Weber Shandwick, briefed the Egyptian delegation before meetings with U.S. lawmakers. And APCO staff, for their part, have longstanding relationships on Capitol Hill. APCO Senior Director Dan Scandling, a registered Egypt agent, is currently “advising” and “representing” the Egyptian government, according to his registration form. Before joining APCO, he spent 25 years working as a Republican staffer in the House of Representatives.
The day after the Abdel Aal sparred with Pelosi about the treatment of LGBTQ Egyptians, APCO’s operatives tweeted out an account of that sit-down from the Egyptian state-run newspaper Al-Ahram. The article doesn’t mention LGBTQ rights at all.
After the meeting in Washington, APCO’s social media accounts moved on to new topics their clients wanted to highlight. The Twitter accounts promoted a meeting in Cairo between Sisi and American evangelical Christian leaders — including Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has called an “anti-LGBTQ” organization. The accounts also publicized Egypt’s Youth Forum, a public relations stunt that brought Westerners, including actor Helen Hunt, to Egypt for a pro-government conference promoting Sisi’s economic vision. One U.K.-based blogger, Jazza John, told The Intercept his invitation to the conference was abruptly rescinded, and he suspects he was uninvited because he is gay.
By the end of November, Egypt had spent the better part of a month issuing formal prison sentences to a number of arrested gay men. On November 27, one Cairo court sentenced 17 people to three years behind bars for “inciting debauchery” and “abnormal sexual relations.”
As Egypt’s courts followed through on the crackdown, APCO’s involvement with the Egyptian government continued to grow. The day after the verdict, according to Justice Department filings, the firm added two new members to its Egypt team.
Correction: Dec. 19, 2017
This story initially included a photograph of 700 12th St. N.W. in Washington, D.C., that, due to an editing error, identified the building as APCO Worldwide’s headquarters. Since the photograph was taken, APCO moved its headquarters to 1299 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W. in Washington, D.C.