Amid tension with Washington, consultants fear to work openly in Egypt as it prepares for a presidential vote.
Egypt was supposed to be the next great market for American political consultants, but that optimism has evaporated as tension builds between Cairo and Washington. After an initial flurry of interest from U.S.-based consultants, many now say they will avoid working in Egypt’s upcoming elections.
A group of 43 foreign civil society experts, including more than a dozen Americans, are facing trial and some were trapped in Egypt after the country’s rulers issued travel bans in the wake of government raids on the offices of several non-governmental organizations. Those December raids and the ongoing legal proceedings against Americans involved in democracy building there have raised the ire of the White House and many in Congress who are threatening to cut off U.S. aid to the country.
But it’s the crackdown on groups like the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute that’s especially concerning. The recent raids saw thousands of dollars in equipment and cash seized from the IRI and NDI offices, and Egyptian authorities had refused to allow Americans who worked for those groups to leave the country until this week.
“For me, I would not be going to Egypt right now,” says David Williams, a pollster for IRI who told C&E this summer he was optimistic about the country’s transition to democracy after decades of authoritarian rule by former President Hosni Mubarak.
The American organizations held trainings for activists in the lead up to last fall’s elections, which saw the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party claim a majority of seats in Egypt’s lower house of parliament. A government minister, Fayza Abul Naga, has since accused NDI and IRI of seeking to influence the outcome of the country’s elections through their activities.
The civil society groups have said the crackdown against them was politically motivated, and Williams agrees: “It wasn’t as if [IRI and NDI] were picking sides. They were doing some good work.”
The new regime of military leaders, which has held power since Mubarak left office last February, had been allowing American pollsters like Williams to operate in the country by simply not approving or rejecting their applications to conduct surveys.
“They had kind of an open door policy,” Williams explains. But after the election results put the Muslim Brotherhood’s party in a position of power, the surviving elements of the old regime—Abul Naga included—got nervous.
“The situation just literally changed overnight,” says Williams. “To just bring the hammer down—it’s the worst case scenario.” Having worked in 28 countries over 15 years with IRI, he says, “I don’t believe any country that I’ve worked in has had this happen.”
It’s still possible to do some polling work from outside the country because Egypt has “a reasonable landline penetration rate,” he adds. But polling done over the phone in developing countries is considered less reliable than in-person surveys.
Now, any consultant working inside Egypt will have to keep looking over his shoulder. The regime has sent a clear signal that the freewheeling political atmosphere that had persisted since a protest movement brought down Mubarak won’t be tolerated.
“If they’re willing to take on a large international organization from the United States that enjoys significant support in the U.S. Congress, they’ll be willing to take on average political consultants,” says David Denehy, an international political consultant.
Denehy notes that the regime is threatening to prosecute Sam LaHood, IRI’s country director and the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. According to Denehy, it has many consultants thinking, “If they’re willing to put the son of a cabinet secretary in an Egyptian prison, imagine what they’re willing to do to me.”
LaHood was among seven Americans who were allowed to leave Egypt on Thursday after the regime lifted its travel ban and the U.S. government posted almost $5 million in bail.
Meanwhile, the costs for consultants to operate inside Egypt could increase by as much as 50 percent, according to some estimates, as precautions such as personal security and risk insurance become required. That will have to be passed on to the clients, says Denehy, who continues to consult in Iraq. “My guess is that there’s going to be few who are willing to pay those prices.”
It’s not just cost that could keep consultants out of Egypt. Some operatives noted that civil society- building groups are essential to creating a competitive political environment, which in turn generates demand for Western expertise.
“We depend on NDI and IRI and others, if you will, to help lay the basic democratic foundations upon which we do our work,” says Andreas Katsouris, a consultant with Aristotle who worked for NDI in Egypt. “Voters can only make informed choices if they understand their rights and democratic process, and if political parties and civic groups are sufficiently organized to communicate effectively.”
Tyler Harber is one consultant with extensive overseas experience who isn’t as pessimistic about Egypt’s future prospects. He notes that NGOs are easy targets because they operate openly in country whereas political consultants deliberately avoid attention.
“I think American political operatives working with parties in Egypt may chose to [consult] from safer countries in the region for the next few months, but I suspect that we will be back to business as usual sooner rather than later,” he says.
Egypt is slated to hold its first post- Mubarak presidential vote in May, and the complexity of that campaign means the door isn’t entirely closed for Western political consultants just yet.
Sean J. Miller is a contributing editor to Campaigns & Elections magazine.