New leaked emails from Emirati Ambassador to Washington, Yousef Al-Otaiba, show that the UAE spent $2.7 million to whitewash the image of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi and his government in the US.
According to the leaked emails, published by the Intercept today, the UAE decided to mainly fund lobbying groups in Washington to promote Al-Sisi's government. In 2013, Egypt recruited the Glover Park Group, a top public relations and lobbying firm founded by former White House and Democratic officials, to act as a public face for the Egyptian government in the American capital.
In a memo emailed to Al-Otaiba in September 2015, Glover Park Group described its work for Egypt as aiming to influence the American government and the Washington "echo chamber" made up of think tanks, research centres and media organisations in order to impact American policy.
At an earlier time during the same year, Richard Mintz of the Harbour Group, a firm that has worked as a lobbyist for the UAE for many years, emailed Al-Otaiba a bill for the Egyptian contract amounting to $2,735,343.
Mintz told Al-Otaiba that Glover Park Group would "like to get paid directly by UAE. But they are still waiting on a final opinion from the FARA [Foreign Agents Registration Act] lawyers to see if it's possible."
Al-Otaiba emailed Glover Park Group's Managing Director Joel Johnson six months later to inform him that the UAE transferred $2.7 million to Cairo, the lion's share of the $3 million payment Egypt later made to the firm.
In addition to this, the leaked emails also show that Al-Otaiba has worked hard to whitewash Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi's image. Such efforts include lecturing journalists and think tank staffers on the benefits of having Al-Sisi rule Egypt.
When Politico's Michael Crowley wrote an article titled "Trump to welcome Egypt's dictator" in April, quoting human rights specialists on the brutal crackdown campaign launched by Al-Sisi, Al-Otaiba emailed Crowley accusing him of "having something against Sisi", despite being "one of the smartest and most thoughtful journalists in the business."
Crowley replied with a warning that Al-Sisi's crackdowns against Egyptian civil society could lead to more extremism. At the end of their email exchange, Al-Otaiba forwarded the emails to US Deputy National Security Adviser Dina Powell, writing: "FYI. This is generally what we're up against." Crowley refused to comment on his correspondence with Al-Otaiba.
Al-Otaiba has found some in Washington who supported and sympathised with his efforts, while others refused to budge. An example of a supporter is Brian Katulis of the Centre for American Progress. Days after Al-Sisi met with President Donald Trump in Washington, Katulis emailed a detailed agenda proposal for Egypt to present to the White House via Powell.
In the April 2017 correspondence, Katulis told Al-Otaiba that the Trump administration would likely ask Egypt to make security and counterterrorism a "top priority" and would want to discuss trade and investment. Katulis also added that the US administration would also ask Egypt to release some political prisoners, who had become an "unnecessary distraction from the important work". Two weeks later, the Egyptian government released Aya Hijazi, an Egyptian-American activist accused of child abuse and human trafficking, after three years of detention.
Katulis also suggested the UAE ask the Trump administration to appoint a US ambassador to Egypt, preferably someone trusted by president's son-in-law Jared Kushner and Powell. He recommended Eric Trager from Washington Institute for Near East Peace because of his strong relations with Egypt. He also said the UAE should request that the White House appoint a staffer to deal with dissidents in Congress.
While Katulis supported Al-Otaiba's efforts, others, such as Elliot Abrams, had a different position. While Abrams, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, was preparing to testify about Egypt in a Capitol Hill hearing in April, Al-Otaiba tried to urge Abrams to support rapprochement with Al-Sisi. However, Abrams remained convinced that Al-Sisi had "created a jihadi manufacturing plant" through his suppression of the opposition.
In later correspondence with Abrams, Al-Otaiba acted as Al-Sisi's defence lawyer, telling Abrams in July 2016 that "American ally and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan makes Sisi look like a teddy bear." Abrams was not convinced with the comparison and replied: "Therefore what, though? That we should make believe Sisi is not twice as repressive as Mubarak ever was?" Al-Otaiba stuck to his guns and said: "Erdogan gets a pass because of NATO, while Sisi gets beat up by everyone."
Another person not convinced by Al-Otaiba's efforts is Brookings Institute Executive Vice President Martin Indyk, who served as a special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations under the Obama administration.
Al-Otaiba wrote to Indyk in February 2016, "I can make a strong case why the region as it is today, is not ready for US style democracy," while Indyk replied he could "also make a strong case that Sisi-style suppression is bad for the region."
The UAE envoy was not convinced, responding: "I'm not against democracy. But I think democracy as a cure all solution to our problems is naïve." Indyk jokingly replied: "Bring back the Pharaohs!" To which Al-Otaiba replied: "The pharaohs and King Farouk we're Egypt's best days. Two non-democratic systems."
Indyk then replied: "People yearn to be free Yusuf. They also yearn to be secure. Finding the balance is the test of leadership. But one without the other is unsustainable."
"Agreed, but we have proven that good leadership delivers good governance and security does not necessarily require democracy," replied Al-Otaiba.
All of the individuals quoted above declined the Intercept's request for comment on the correspondences.