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Amid protests at home, Egypt mobilizes strong lobbying force in Washington

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 1, 2011; 5:33 PM

After Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak renewed a draconian security law last year, a bipartisan group of 15 U.S. senators pushed legislation condemning the country's record on human rights and free elections.

But the nonbinding resolution went nowhere, thanks to a concerted and intense lobbying campaign by Egypt and its U.S. lobbyists. The measure was blocked by anonymous objections in the waning days of the last Congress, just weeks before massive protests broke out on the streets of Cairo.

"They would view something like that as an unwarranted intrusion into their affairs, to the level of a grand insult," said former Connecticut congressman Toby Moffett (D), one of Egypt's chief U.S. lobbyists. "It was a very big deal to them."

The episode underscores the deep and long-standing clout that Egypt enjoys in Washington, which now hands out about $1.5 billion in military and other foreign aid to the Arab nation each year. Egypt spends nearly $2 million annually on lobbying and public relations efforts in the United States, much of it focused on maintaining the two nations' uneasy alliance.

The country's main U.S. lobbying team includes Moffett and two of Washington's biggest power brokers: Democrat Tony Podesta and former Republican congressman Bob Livingston (La.). An umbrella company formed by the three lobbyists, called PLM Group, has collected $1.1 million from Egypt's government each year since 2007, records show.

Egyptian agencies also pay two firms - Chlopak Leonard Schechter and Associates, and Hill and Knowlton - for a variety of public relations work, according to documents on file with the Justice Department, which requires detailed records on lobbying by overseas entities.

The lobbying efforts over the years have included thousands of meetings between lawmakers and Egyptian civilian and military officials. Some of the meetings have included participation by major U.S. defense contractors, which have a vested interest in continuing U.S. foreign and military aid payments to the Arab nation.

The Sunlight Foundation, which tracks money and lobbying in Washington, tallied nearly 250 meetings between Egyptian officials and U.S. lawmakers and their aides in the first seven months of 2010 alone. The bulk of those visits came last April, when an Egyptian military delegation shepherded by Livingston held a barrage of meetings with 45 lawmakers and about 100 staffers.

"In terms of presence and contact with U.S. officials, they are one of the top 10 countries in Washington," said Bill Allison, the foundation's editorial director. "They pay very close attention to what Congress and the administration are doing."

The country's U.S. lobbyists are now working feverishly to calm tensions on Capitol Hill amid the popular revolt in Egypt that led to Mubarak's promise on Tuesday to relinquish his 30-year hold on power. The lobbyists are coordinating meetings with Egypt's ambassador in Washington, Sameh Shoukry, and fielding inquiries from lawmakers and their aides.

The main message, according to Moffett: that Egypt is a vital and stable U.S. ally in one of the most dangerous regions of the world.

"I think our whole team, Egyptian and American, is feeling much better about the way in which that message about the critical relationship is getting out there," Moffett said Monday. "What would happen if Egypt flipped? It would not be a very pretty thing for the United States or Israel or anyone else."

Moffett also said it is "an honor to serve Egypt" and that none of the country's lobbyists have any intention of severing ties with the Mubarak government. In other recent instances, several Washington firms dropped representation of despots in Ivory Coast and in Tunisia amid accusations of human rights abuses in those countries.

Records filed under the Foreign Agents Registration Act show that much of Egypt's lobbying has focused on maintaining the flow of foreign aid, which burgeoned in the late 1970s after a historic peace agreement between Egypt and Israel. More than $65 billion in U.S. aid has poured in since then, according to the Congressional Research Service, much of it in the form of jets and other military hardware.

A previous review of lobbying records by the Sunlight Foundation revealed the symbiosis at work: Some lobbyists representing Egypt also work for many of the United States' main defense contractors.

From 2007 to 2008, for example, PLM Group coordinated meetings between lawmakers, administration officials and defense contractors, including BAE Systems, General Dynamics, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, records show. At the time, Livingston represented Raytheon, and Podesta represented the other three firms.

Podesta was traveling in Europe on business and could not be reached for comment. Livingston did not respond to a telephone message.

Michele Dunne, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and editor of the Arab Reform Bulletin, said K Street isn't the only avenue open to Mubarak's regime in Washington. Many veteran U.S. lawmakers, she said, developed close relationships with the Egyptian leader.

"That's probably been the Egyptians' best lobbying tool," Dunne said. "Mubarak has been in power so long that a lot of members of Congress came to consider him a friend. They were uncomfortable in criticizing or embarrassing him."

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