The US Justice Department recently disclosed that Egypt's general intelligence agency had hired two prominent public relations firms with a view to polishing Egypt's image in the US and promoting its "strategic partnership" with Washington.
According to the Justice Department's website, the intelligence agency signed contracts — worth a combined $1.8 million annually — with US public relations companies Weber Shandwick and Cassidy and Associates.
The contracts, dated 28 January, were reportedly signed by Egyptian General Nasser Fahmi on behalf of General Intelligence Director Khaled Fawzy.
According to the contracts' terms, the two firms would work to "promote [Egypt's] strategic partnership with the US; highlight the country's economic development and civil society activity; and promote Egypt's pioneering role in the field of regional risk management".
Egyptian cabinet spokesman Ashraf Sultan declined to comment on the issue, saying the intelligence agency itself was the only body qualified to comment on the issue.
Amr Hashem Rabie, a senior analyst at Egypt's semi-official Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, attributed the move to the "failure of other state bodies to boost Egypt's image abroad".
"That's probably why the General Intelligence Directorate was entrusted with the task," he said.
Rabie, however, believes the size of the payments reportedly stipulated in the contracts has been "exaggerated".
Egypt continues to struggle with an economic crisis that prompted it to accept a $12-billion loan from the IMF last year, the first tranche of which — $2.75 billion — it received last November.
It is not the first time the Egyptian government has sought help improving the country's image.
The regime of former President Hosni Mubarak — and the military council that temporarily took power after Mubarak was forced to step down in 2011 — had enlisted the help of US firms to help it rebrand itself.
During its first six months in power in 2011, the council paid US PR companies more than $500,000, according to documents revealed by the US Justice Department.
By contrast, Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president and a Muslim Brotherhood leader, had refused to deal with these firms during his single year in office from mid-2012 to mid-2013.
In October of 2013, shortly after Morsi was ousted by the military, Egypt's post-coup government announced it had hired the Glover Park Group, another US public relations firm, to improve its image in Washington.
At the time, Cairo had faced severe international criticism — with the US temporarily freezing military aid — due to the violence against civilian demonstrators that had accompanied Morsi's overthrow.
In a recent report, the US State Department said that human rights violations in Egypt remained commonplace under the regime of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, who assumed power in mid-2014.
According to the State Department, violations include restricting civil gatherings and civil society, exercising undue influence over Egypt's political environment and the use of "excessive force and torture" by the Egyptian security forces.
The Sisi regime also stands accused by rights groups of "forcibly disappearing" its political opponents and preventing them from travelling abroad.
Egyptian officials, meanwhile, reject the allegations, which they say are meant to "distort Egypt's image".
Ever since Egypt signed a 1979 peace treaty with Israel, US-Egypt relations have remained close, especially at the military level, with Washington providing Cairo with some $1.5 billion in annual aid.