What consultants are facing in the Middle East

What consultants are facing in the Middle East
Given ongoing violence, is the calculus for consultants shifting?

The Egyptian political consulting market looks increasingly forbidding with the ongoing street protests centered on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.

Civil unrest has spread across North Africa and the Middle East linked, at least in part, to a video disparaging Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. Protesters stormed the U.S. Embassy compound in Cairo and four American diplomatic personnel, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, were killed in Libya on Tuesday. Protests have subsequently spread to Yemen, Sudan, Morocco and Tunisia.  

Some of the consultants who were circling the North African market following the Arab Spring told C&E they've shifted from a wait-and-see approach to one of resignation about their once-promising opportunities in the region.

"People just think the costs are way too high," says David Denehy, who heads Global Strategic Partners, which has an office in Baghdad.

Still, not all U.S. firms are prepared to write-off doing business in Egypt, which with a population of some 83 million is the market with the biggest potential.

Harcom Strategies, headed by veteran campaign consultant Tyler Harber, recently set up an office in Cairo and isn't planning on folding up its tent, despite the ongoing protests.

"It's very volatile at the moment," Mazen Hassan, Harcom's Middle Eastern Director, told C&E in a Skype interview from Cairo. "[But] if one has the right tools and builds strong contacts, the temporary effect of these incidents could be minimized."

Hassan says the country's next round of parliamentary and local elections, which are expected to happen in the next 18 months, still present an opportunity for consultants—albeit with a catch.

“The danger for political consultants is that you will always be connected with the liberal parties as long as the Muslim parties refuse to hire foreign consultants. So you've only cornered one [section] of the market," says Hassan, who was born and raised in Egypt but received his Ph.D. in England.

The ongoing protests in Cairo aren't strictly a reaction to the controversial video, Hassan notes. Soccer fans, who were on the receiving end of a violent police crackdown, and anti-government protesters have joined those in the streets offended by the video.

"Many people are just going to attack the police forces," says Hassan.

Despite the growing influence of Islamist groups in Egyptian politics -- Mohammed Morsi, the country's new president, is a long-time member of the Muslim Brotherhood -- Hassan says he doesn't see the country progressing into a theocracy.

"In the near future, Egypt will not be a second Iran in the Middle East," he says.

That may be true, but it seems unlikely to become a second Iraq, too. American political consultants such as Denehy continue to operate in Baghdad, even after the withdrawal of U.S. troops. "I don't see that market closing," says Denehy. "Egypt is on a different track. It seems to be heading toward a much more theocratic state."

Egyptian politicians, he adds, "are still interested in learning from Americans, but the profile will be a lot lower. I think they sent that message when they attacked NGOs and put NGO people in jail."

Sean J. Miller is a contributing editor to Campaigns & Elections magazine. 

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