Amid bad publicity, PR firm drops contract with Egyptian mukhabarat

A prominent public relations firm which secured a $1.2 million-a-year contract from Egypt's intelligence apparatus – the mukhabarat – has pulled out of the deal after only seven months.

In January, New York-based Weber Shandwick signed a deal with Major General Khaled Fahmy, head of the General Intelligence Service to promote Egypt's "strategic partnership with the United States". 

The contract also said Weber Shandwick would highlight Egypt's economic development, showcase "key attributes" of Egyptian civil society and publicise the country's "leading role in managing regional risks" (terrorism, etc). In return for this, Weber Shandwick was to be paid $100,000 a month, plus expenses. 

One of the first things the firm did was to set up a website called Egypt Forward which, to quote a recent article in The Atlantic, churned out "a steady diet of upbeat videos and articles characterising Egypt as a vibrant, stable place, marching towards a more democratic and inclusive society".

Given the nature of the Sisi regime, the result was far from spectacular. Egypt Forward's Twitter feed currently has only 92 followers, most of whom appear to be Egyptians rather than the Americans it was intended to target. 

The Twitter feed of Egypt Forward attracted only 92 followers

One of Egypt Forward's articles blamed the Muslim Brotherhood for a church bombing in Cairo (as does the Egyptian government) even though IS had claimed responsibility for the attack.

Another item on the website, accompanied by a "fact sheet" from the Egyptian government, attempted to put a shiny gloss on the regime's repression of civil society. It claimed that Egypt's new NGO law "takes strong steps forward to guarantee specific rights for Egyptian NGOs – limiting intervention by the state, including the military and police, in their daily activities, and encouraging private sector companies to donate to NGOs through the provision of a 10 percent tax deduction."

According to Human Rights Watch, on the other hand, the law "ushers in unprecedented levels of repression and will criminalise the work of many NGOs, making it impossible for them to function independently" and according to Amnesty International it "threatens to annihilate" human rights groups working in Egypt.

The mukhabarat's hiring of Weber Shandwick (plus a lobbying firm, Cassidy & Associates, at $50,000 a month) was intended mainly to bolster Egyptian relations with the United States under Trump's presidency. Significantly, both contracts were signed on January 18 – just before Trump's inauguration. President Sisi, readers may recall, was the first foreign leader to congratulate Trump on his election.

One apparent aim was to safeguard American aid to Egypt, currently around $1.5 billion a year; another was to try to persuade the US to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation. (Both these are discussed in detail in The Atlantic's article.)

American aid to Egypt – most of it military – was already controversial under the Mubarak regime and became even more so after Sisi seized power. At a senate hearing on the aid issue in April, Egypt was roundly criticised by both Republicans and Democrats. A report of the meeting for Al-Monitor noted:

"Throughout the hearing, the only person who attempted to defend Egypt in any way was a silent Weber Shandwick employee at the back of the room who handed out glossy press packets praising 'Egypt's progress'." 

Weber Shandwick has now abandoned this futile task, though another US-based public relations firm, APCO, has agreed to step into the breach for the same fee. APCO's founder, Margery Kraus, told PR Week: "Egypt has an interesting story to tell, and we are comfortably assuming the responsibilities of the assignment." She added:

"Some of this [work] is about trying to make sure people have a clear picture of what Egypt is doing with its relationship with the US, especially the opportunities right now for economic development and tourism."

Meanwhile, Weber Shandwick isn't admitting that bad publicity had anything to do with its decision to drop the toxic contract and is presenting it as part of a change in business strategy. The firm said in a statement: "[We] reviewed our representation of foreign government clients in their efforts to influence US policy and decided to discontinue such work."

When the contracts were signed in January, Weber Shandwick and Cassidy & Associates were both owned by Interpublic Group (IPG). Cassidy & Associates is continuing with its contract but the firm was divested from IPG last June in a management buyout.

Weber Shandwick's Egypt Forward website hailed the country's "transformation"