Egypt's lobby by proxy wields outsize influence in DC

Commentary: Washington's soft line on Cairo's military coup is shaped by pro-Israel and defense lobbies, not democracy

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, March 5, 2013.
Susan Walsh/AP

News recently broke that the Obama administration would be cutting military aid to Egypt in response to the country's military coup and its crackdown against nonviolent protesters. These cuts will be limited and include $250 million in cash assistance and the nondelivery of Apache helicopters and other military hardware. The president's action is "more of a symbolic slap than a punishing wound to the military-backed government," The Associated Press reported. "(The U.S.) will keep providing support for health and education and counterterrorism, spare military parts, military training and education, and border security and security assistance in the Sinai Peninsula."

Why did the Obama administration take so long to cut funding to Egypt's military government? And why is it that the administration failed to cut off all military aid to Egypt, as U.S. law requires in the event of a military coup?

One way countries maintain influence in Washington is by employing lobbyists. But during all of last year up until the beginning of this month, Egypt had no lobbyists in Washington. Indeed, the Egyptian government ended its contracts with high-powered Washington lobbyists Tony Podesta, Bob Livingston and others in January 2012.

So how did Egypt maintain so much influence from January 2012 through October 2013 that it maintained its military-aid package without having to employ any lobbyists, even as the military massacred nonviolent activists and cracked down on independent media?

The answer is that Egypt's military didn't need its own lobbyists because there are already very powerful pro-coup lobbies in place: the pro-Israel lobby and the defense industry.

The true Egypt lobby

In late July, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., introduced an amendment to redirect $1.5 billion in Egyptian aid to rebuilding U.S. infrastructure instead. The amendment was soundly defeated, with 86 nay votes. Why did the amendment meet such opposition? The Daily Beast's Ali Gharib noted one salient factor: the principal issue during floor debate was whether the amendment would hurt Israel.

For example, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, said the Senate must consider the "implications for U.S. national security and for our ally Israel." He later said, "When you have hundreds of tunnels in the Sinai being used by extremists to send weapons into Gaza to attack Israel, it is about their security."

Menendez's framing of the Egyptian-aid question likely pleased his financial backers. Data from the Center for Responsive Politics show that he received more money from the pro-Israel lobby than any other victorious senator in the 2012 races (The only candidate who received more was Nevada's Shelley Berkley, who lost.)

"We do not support cutting off all assistance to Egypt at this time, as we believe it could increase the instability in Egypt and undermine important U.S. interests and negatively impact our Israeli ally," urged the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the most vocal pro-Israel lobbying group, in an open letter to Menendez before the vote.

Some senators even went so far as to cite AIPAC's position as decisive. "The fact is, AIPAC and the Israelis are adamantly opposed to this amendment," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said. He recently switched his position as human-rights abuses have grown more severe.

However, other best friends of the pro-Israel lobby in Congress continue to defend aid to Egypt. Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., told ABC News in August that he does not think it is time to suspend U.S aid. "Egypt's an important country," he said. "We have to be very careful before we willy-nilly just cut off aid."

With hundreds dead after a brutal military crackdown, it is not entirely clear what action Engel would not deem willy-nilly. But it is worth noting that Engel received $94,150 from the pro-Israel lobby during the last election cycle, the second most he received from any group.

Egypt has multiyear contracts with U.S. weapon manufacturers that allow purchases before congressional appropriations to pay for them.

In addition, the Israeli government has joined the domestic pro-Israel lobby in pushing to keep U.S. aid to Egypt. "Israel plans this week to intensify its diplomatic campaign urging Europe and the United States to support the military-backed government in Egypt despite its deadly crackdown on Islamist protesters, according to a senior Israeli official involved in the effort," Judi Rudoren reported in the New York Times in August, when pressure mounted for the administration to cut off aid.

Egypt's hired guns

In the second week of October, after the Obama administration's "symbolic slap," Egypt's military government finally hired its own lobbyists. It chose the Glover Park Group, a lobbying shop staffed primarily by top-level Democrats that has also been retained by Lockheed Martin, JPMorgan Chase and other powerful interests.

The choice of Glover Park is not surprising. The firm's Democratic Party–aligned staffers are likely to have the most influence with the Democratic administration. For example, Glover Park's managing director of government affairs is Susan Brophy, who served as White House deputy assistant to the president and deputy director of legislative affairs for President Bill Clinton. The firm has hired Jennifer Loven, The Associated Press' White House correspondent for the first two years of the Obama administration. Her lobbying clients include the American Bankers Association, the Nigerian government and the Campaign to Fix the Debt. Former Clinton press secretary Dee Dee Myers also works at Glover Park. The first woman to be White House press secretary, Myers is an avowed supporter of women's rights and wrote a 2008 book titled "Why Women Should Rule the World." She now works for a firm representing a government unable or unwilling to protect women who have been subject to sexual assault by both demonstrators and the military.

Several other staffers at Glover Park are tied to the Israel lobby. Jason Boxt, senior vice president at the firm, was the national deputy political director at AIPAC, which is "one of the most influential lobbying organizations in the United States," his bio boasts. Arik Ben-Zvi, a Glover Park managing director, worked for Vice President Al Gore's presidential campaign, giving him cachet in Democratic politics, and served as a consultant for "national and local elections in Israel," as his bio on the firm's site states. Matt Mandel, a Glover Park vice president, worked in the legislative department of AIPAC.

Joined by the defense lobby

The efforts of the domestic pro-Israel lobby and Egypt's new salesmen in Washington are matched by another center of influence: supporters of the massive U.S. defense industry. Egypt's military is "doing the right thing," Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., said in an interview with Al-Monitor in late July. "I think we have to be very careful to not do anything to disrupt their movement toward getting back to democracy."

McKeon is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and the top recipient of defense-industry cash in Congress. In fact, he gets more defense- industry dollars than any other two members of Congress combined.

U.S. weapon contractors are heavily invested in Egypt. For example, General Dynamics is still processing a $395 million Egyptian tank contract it received in 2011, for which some of the work will be completed by a plant in Tallahassee, Fla. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., not only opposed Paul's amendment but also, in an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, called for a restructuring of aid to Egypt that might include material to combat Egypt's "internal" threats, like "Islamists who want to turn the country into another Islamist-run" country — a clear reference to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Rewarding members of Congress with campaign donations and jobs in their districts is not the only recourse for private contractors dependent on government largesse. Thanks to a system called cash-flow financing, Egypt has multiyear contracts with U.S. weapon manufacturers that allows purchases before congressional appropriations to pay for them. These are essentially unfinished contracts, and if "aid were cut," Thomas Hedges writes, "defense contractors would overwhelm the U.S. government with lawsuits demanding compensation for lost profits."

Who speaks for democracy?

The backlash against Obama's modest step by some of these unofficial lobbyists has already begun. "I am disappointed that the administration is planning to partially suspend military aid to Egypt," said Engel in response to the move. "During this fragile period, we should be rebuilding partnerships in Egypt that enhance our bilateral relationship, not undermining them."

"This White House is trying to have it both ways," said Morris Amitay, a former executive director of AIPAC. "It's doing just enough to alienate the Egyptian military, who we will need to preserve the peace, and to alienate those people in Congress demanding tougher action because of the coup. Either way, it's a lose-lose proposition, with grave implications for stability and our already eroding credibility in the region."

One Israeli official said to The New York Times, "If America is seen to be turning its back on Egypt, an old ally, how will it be seen? People will see it as the United States dropping a friend." 

Thus the mystery of Egypt's lack of a strong lobby in Washington is solved. Egypt's military government has finally hired its own registered Beltway lobbyists, but they join a chorus of other powerful pro-coup lobbyists for domestic pro-Israel and military-contract interests.

All this influence peddling has come at the price of democracy. First, the Israel lobby and the defense industry advance interests contrary to Egypt's pro-democracy activists. Second, the the will of the American people, 6 in 10 of whom say aid to Egypt's military government should be reduced or eliminated, is being ignored. If money and special-interest lobbying did not so distort the U.S political process, if the country were a genuine democratic republic, Congress and the Obama administration would take a harder line.

Opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Al Jazeera America.

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter