Amid Protests, Egypt's D.C. Lobbyists Draw Scrutiny

In Washington, there's an old saying: Everyone has a lobbyist.

That includes foreign governments. And as protests rage in Egypt, that government's paid lobbyists are suddenly under scrutiny.

A trio of Washington's best-connected lobbyists makes more than $1 million a year helping the Mubarak government buy armaments and ward off criticism in Washington.

Lobbyists In Action

Last summer, Sens. John McCain and Russ Feingold introduced a bipartisan resolution criticizing the Egyptian government. It called on Cairo to stop arbitrary detention and torture, and ensure free elections.

Advocates on both sides started contacting senators. Mississippi Republican Roger Wicker says he spoke with the Egyptian ambassador, a human-rights group and former GOP Rep. Bob Livingston.

Livingston called because the Egyptian government is one of his clients. Since 2007, the Mubarak government has employed Livingston and two other top lobbyists: former Democratic Rep. Toby Moffett and Tony Podesta, one of the most influential Democratic lobbyists in town these days. (Full disclosure: NPR is a client of Podesta's lobby firm.)

The three lobbyists all either declined or didn't respond to interview requests.

The human-rights resolution they opposed never got voted on. Wicker says he "expressed concerns" that slowed it down, as did other senators.

"I didn't do anything from a parliamentary standpoint," Wicker says. "I didn't object. I didn't place a hold on the resolution."

And, the senator says, his stand was not related to an $800 million shipbuilding contract in his home state. A shipyard there is building four missile ships for the Egyptian navy.

Last spring, the keel was laid for the first ship. Livingston flew down for the ceremony.

"It's a photo op," says Bill Allison, editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation, which has been analyzing the disclosure records from lobbyists for foreign governments. "It's very similar to when members of Congress have the earmarks and pose with the giant checks."

Personal Contacts

"The analysis by the Sunlight Foundation shows the Livingston-Moffett-Podesta partnership is making literally hundreds of contacts each year with lawmakers, Capitol Hill staffers and officials at the State Department and Pentagon.

The agenda item for many of the contacts is arms sales. Every year, the U.S. sends Egypt more than $1 billion — and Egypt sends it back for purchases of U.S.-made weaponry.

The mainstay of the Egyptian air force is the F-16 fighter, and the big, turreted tanks at Tahrir Square last week were M1A1s. Both are made in America by General Dynamics — a big defense contractor that is also Podesta's lobbying client.

So when it's time to bring Egyptian military buyers together with U.S. contractors, Allison says, the Podesta firm is in a sweet spot.

"By advocating for the interests of both sides of the deal ... it's almost like they can't lose," he says.

But even if it is good for the lobbyists, why exactly does Cairo need to hire lobbyists in Washington, when it already has an ambassador and an embassy full of attaches?

Mostly, it's about Congress.

As Michele Dunne, a Middle East expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, puts it: "I think they've been able, to some extent, to call on their personal relationships ... with members of Congress and ability to get their telephone calls through."

Dunne has been in and out of Cairo for years — with the State Department as well as the Carnegie Endowment. And she's noticed something:

"I'm pretty sure the U.S. does not have lobbyists in Cairo."

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