Can the mukhabarat’s PR firms polish up Egypt’s image?

When Donald Trump won the US election last November, Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi boasted of being the first international leader to phone and congratulate him.

Immediately after his inauguration Trump returned the compliment. On his first working day in the Oval Office, Sisi was the first Arab leader that he called. They reportedly “discussed ways to deepen the bilateral relationship and support Egypt’s fight against terrorists”.

Trump had previously described Sisi as “a fantastic guy” and the Egyptian regime is clearly looking forward to a much warmer relationship with the US than it had under the Obama administration.

Against that background we now have the revelation that the Sisi regime — or, more precisely, its intelligence apparatus, the mukhabarat — has decided to spend $150,000 a month on political lobbying in the United States.

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Contracts were signed on 18 January — just a couple of days before Trump’s inauguration — with two public relations firms, Weber Shandwick (which will be paid at least £100,000 a month, plus expenses) and Cassidy & Associates (which will be paid $50,000 a month plus expenses).

The services to be provided by these two companies are described in the contracts as follows:

1. Promoting the client’s strategic partnership with the United States; 2. Highlighting the client’s economic development; 3. Showcasing key attributes of the client’s civil society;

4. Publicising the client’s leading role in managing regional risks.

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“Showcasing” Egypt’s civil society promises to be an interesting challenge for the PR firms, since the regime has been persistently harassing independent civil society organisations and trying to shut them down.

This points to a common misapprehension among authoritarian regimes: that PR firms can work miracles if paid enough money. It’s a belief that some PR firms happily encourage and one firm working to put a shine on the repressive Bahraini regime a few years ago even made it part of its sales pitch: “The world may see bruised tomatoes,” it said. “We are the chefs who make them into marinara that is irresistible.”

But despite the mystique surrounding PR firms and lobbyists, bad publicity resulting from bad policies is hard to neutralise: they can’t accentuate the positive unless there is something positive to accentuate.

The Bahrain regime’s PR offensive in the wake of the 2011 uprising is one example of what can go wrong.

In 2013 the Gulf Daily News — a normally pro-government publication — denounced the regime’s use of what it called “PR mercenaries”, arguing that they were a waste of money. The article’s author, Anwar Abdulrahman, wrote:

“How much has been spent by Bahrain on these PR experts and agencies over the past two years? According to various sources, the figure over the 18 months following the start of the unrest has reached millions of dollars in fees.

“Firms involved in this group of hired hands, including Washington DC-based Qorvis Communications and London-based Bell Pottinger, have undertaken a number of tasks including writing and placing opinion pieces supporting Bahrain in western media outlets, briefing western journalists about the political situation in Bahrain, creating websites and feeding social media accounts to create public opinion and arranging meetings with western government officials.”

The irony in this, Abdulrahman noted, was that opposition activists had also managed to get their voices heard in western media — and “at a fraction of the cost”.

Meanwhile, instead of swallowing the Bahrain government’s line as hoped, some western journalists had started writing critically about the kingdom’s “charm offensive”.

“The hired defenders have become the story,” Abdulrahman said — “which in PR terms is a disaster”. He also pointed out that paying foreign PR firms large amounts of money to spread “good news” about Bahrain tended to devalue the message:

“It appeared that Bahrain’s hired guns were not known for their commitment to a cause or to the truth but rather to their loyalty to the ‘dollar-a-fact’ … “

In Egypt’s case, though, it’s rather worse than that because the hired PR guns are not merely being paid by an authoritarian regime but by an authoritarian regime’s intelligence service.

Originally published at

Former Middle East editor of the Guardian. Website: Author of 'Arabs Without God'.

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