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The New Egypt

When a lobbyist’s client is Egypt

David Gura Mar 14, 2011
The New Egypt

When a lobbyist’s client is Egypt

David Gura Mar 14, 2011

Kai Ryssdal: The United States is dipping a diplomatic toe into the situation in Libya. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s in Paris today, where she’s set to meet with members of the Libyan opposition. Tomorrow she’s going to be in Cairo, to see first hand what’s happening there. Although, she didn’t necessarily have to go all that way.

Every year, Egypt pays American lobbyists more than a million dollars to represent its interests to the White House, on Capitol Hill, and in corporate boardrooms. We sent Marketplace’s David Gura off in search of the answer to this question: For that kind of money, what does a foreign government get?

David Gura: Image work, for starters. A few years ago, The PLM Group put together a campaign for its client called, “Take a second look at Egypt.”

Toby Moffett: The communications part of our team distributed, I don’t know, hundreds of postcard-shaped messages saying, “Did you know this fact about Egypt?”

That’s lobbyist and former congressman Toby Moffett, the “M” in The PLM Group. The Egyptian Embassy sent those cards to influential people who might not know that say, “Cairo is home to Africa’s only subway system.” Moffett created The PLM Group in 2007, with Tony Podesta and another former congressman, Bob Livingston, to be lobbyists for Egypt.

Before then, Graeme Bannerman was the country’s point man in Washington.

Graeme Bannerman: Well, I fundamentally believe that you really shouldn’t have to have lobbyists, but the problem is our system of government is so complicated, and decisions are so strange, you know, that sometimes you need somebody to guide you through the system.

Lobbyists brief embassy staff. They set up meetings with Americans — from the government and businesses, including defense contractors.

Bill Allison is with the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for more transparent lobbying.

Bill Allison: You know, they do all kinds of different things to try to get these people together and talking, ’cause once you start talking, then you make deals.

During the first Gulf War, for example, Bannerman lobbied hard to get Egypt’s foreign debts forgiven. How’d he do it? He invited a few dozen congressional and administration staffers to join him for lunch.

Bannerman: When the Iraqis invaded Kuwait, and the president said, what can we do to help the Egyptians out, two of the people in that meeting wrote the memo that said, forgive their debt.

New rules put an end to the Bannerman brown bag, but Egypt’s lobbying team went into action last year, helping to organize opposition to a Senate resolution “supporting democracy, human rights, and civil liberties” in Egypt — just before elections there.

Sarah Margon was a foreign policy adviser to one its sponsors, Senator Russ Feingold. She described the resolution:

Sarah Margon: We recognize the critical importance of Egypt in the region. We recognize the critical importance of maintaining our relationship. But we also think it is in both the Egyptians’ interest and our own interest for them to start making serious democratic reforms.

It had support from Democrats and Republicans. But over the summer, Margon says that started to change.

Margon: There was an Egyptian delegation that flew in from Cairo to protest against it. My understanding is the Secretary of State was asked about it on phone calls.

Lobbyists had questions for Margon. Then, she says, they tried to slow things down.

Moffett: Let’s not overstate what the consultants did here.

Toby Moffett acknowledges he lobbied against the resolution, but he says many senators decided it was imprudent. They were concerned it could derail efforts to restart peace talks, between Israel and the Palestinians. And Congress’ summer recess was approaching.

Moffett: This was, in good measure, the Senate running out of time, first of all, and secondly, the Senate saying, “Why are we doing this right now?”

Margon, the Senate aide, came away with a different take.

Margon: In the end, the resolution didn’t move. But it was not because the clock ran out.

In the end, the clock did run out on anti-democratic forces in Egypt. So, I asked Toby Moffett how Egypt’s story, the one he’s paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to tell — and sell — has changed. The PLM Group landed on its feet after the Revolution. The military controls the country, and the Defense Ministry is one of the Group’s clients.

Moffett: Let’s put it this way, we look forward to having more positive things to talk about, in addition to all the positive things we have had to talk about.

Moffett says he’s on Capitol Hill and on the phone every day, talking to his Egyptian clients, giving suggestions. Like so many people, he’s had “to take a second look at Egypt.”

In Washington, I’m David Gura for Marketplace.

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