Middle East unrest stirs up K Street

The turmoil in the Middle East has created another form of unrest among Washington’s lobbyists and public-relations experts.

Firms are scrambling to adjust to the new reality in the wake of the pro-democracy movements that have swept through Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab countries. 

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K Street firms with clients in the Middle East have canceled contracts, signed new deals and altered their lobbying strategies as they adapt to the changing landscape.

The PLM Group, for example, a consortium of three top D.C. lobby shops, has seen its business with the Egyptian government shift course since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak’s regime. 

The PLM trio, which includes the Livingston Group, the Podesta Group and the Moffett Group, had lobbied for years on behalf of Mubarak’s government and is now urging the continuation of U.S. aid despite Mubarak’s exit from power, according to an email on file with Justice Department. 

Former Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), the founder and head of the Livingston Group, wrote an email lobbying against cuts to Egypt’s foreign aid on Feb. 16, five days after Mubarak stepped down. 

“Any hope we have for a democratic transition in Egypt depends directly upon our relations with the people of Egypt who have brought about this change,” Livingston said in the email. “Since the Egyptian military was critical to the peaceful resolution of the current crisis, what kind of message would we be sending to them by cutting off all the aid?”

In his email, Livingston was referring to an amendment by Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) that was under discussion for the continuing resolution last month but did not end up being offered on the floor. Paul’s amendment would have cut $5.3 billion from the Foreign Military Financing program, including $1.3 billion meant for Egypt’s military.

Former Rep. Toby Moffett (D-Conn.), founder of the Moffett Group and chairman of the PLM Group, said the changes in Egypt have shifted their lobbying focus.

“We are going to be spending less time having to debate human rights and free elections,” Moffett told The Hill. “Our agenda is going to be different, because the thread that ties all these revolutions together is the economic depravation over there.”

Moffett said lobbying for Egypt’s new government will likely focus more on trying to encourage investment and economic aid from the Export-Import Bank of the United States, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and the Commerce Department. 

He said lobbyists for Egypt have reached out to the international division at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to encourage the private sector to invest in the country.

“Right now, what we surmise is that we are going to be spending a lot of time with the people who can help with economic development and jobs,” Moffett said.

Others contracted with the Egyptian government have had to help explain its tumultuous situation to Washington. The public-relations firm Chlopak, Leonard Schetcher and Associates (CLS), for example, sent out a press release last month to media outlets and think tanks giving an update on “the Egyptian Dialogue” being led by then-Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman concerning the protests.

Suleiman has since left the vice presidency, and the PR firm has exited as well. Though it had a $45,000-per-month agreement with the Egyptian Press and Information Office since 2009, CLS’s contract came to an end a month earlier than expected this year.

“The contract with CLS was due to end in March and there was no decision from the previous government to renew it. By mutual agreement, both Egypt and CLS decided to end the contract at the end of February, rather than at the end of March when it was originally set to expire,” the Egyptian press office said in a statement to The Hill.

Other firms have taken the initiative and canceled their contracts in light of controversy stemming from their government clients’ cracking down on protesters. In January, the Washington Media Group dropped Tunisia as a client as the government there tried, unsuccessfully, to tamp down demonstrators.

Revolution can be profitable too, and some firms have stepped into the void to lobby and advocate for new clients. Qorvis Communications has signed a $92,000 per-month contract with Stanley Rowe, who is special counsel to Ezz Industries, an Egyptian steelmaker.

Ezz’s chairman, Ahmed Ezz, was considered a close political ally of Mubarak’s and is reportedly under investigation for corruption. Matt Lauer, a partner at Qorvis, said his firm will work to highlight Ezz’s situation in the new Egypt.

“In this period of revolution, we are working to describe the current legal system in Egypt,” Lauer said.

According to the contract on file with the Justice Department, Qorvis plans to promote “a transparent judicial system in Egypt” during “this pivotal time.”

That will include reaching out to members of Congress, the White House, the State Department and reporters. Working on the effort will be Greg Lagana, a former senior State Department and George W. Bush White House aide, and Sam Dealey, once the editor of The Washington Times.

Qorvis has worked for Ezz in the past, helping to draw attention to the National Democratic Party — his and Mubarak’s political party — according to Justice Department records.

Other countries in the grips of unrest have turned to K Street for help. 

Amid widespread anti-government protests, Bahrain hired Potomac Square Group for communications help last month under a $20,000, one-month contract, according to Justice records. Christopher Cooper, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and partner at the firm, worked with Abdul Latif bin Rashid al-Zayani, Bahrain’s special envoy to the United States, to talk about the country’s reform efforts with Washington reporters and government officials. 

“My job here was to get their message out … to Washington, and that was official Washington, think tanks and reporters. That was to explain to them what the crown prince was doing, which is the national dialogue,” Cooper said.