It was a stifling June day in Cairo and pollster David Williams was striding to the top floor conference room of the city’s Sheraton hotel ready to brief a prominent Egyptian political columnist on the results of his firm’s latest survey. Before he could even start, though, the columnist interjected, and Williams knew he had some convincing to do.
“Polling won’t work here,” the Egyptian writer told Williams. “People won’t tell you the truth.”
The quick dismissal wasn’t a surprise given that the country of some 82 million was just starting to feel its way to democracy after the collapse of longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak’s regime in February.
Undeterred, Williams launched into his talk, presenting the findings of his Massachusetts-based firm’s survey of 1,200 Egyptian adults.
“The cooperation rates,” Williams explained, “are about what we would expect virtually anywhere else.”
The skeptical columnist listened intently, slowly coming around to a tool that, for decades, had been of no use in Egypt’s authoritarian political culture.
“By the end of it, the guy was just totally amazed,” says Williams. “He had come around 180 degrees.”
The revolutions that toppled Mubarak in Egypt, Col. Moammar Gadhafi in Libya and President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, and those that jostled Yemen and Syria, have left a historic opening in North Africa’s politics. It’s an opening that some U.S.-based political consultants are moving quickly to fill.
“It has the same feeling and the same potential of the fall of the Berlin Wall,” contends Williams, who was in Cairo as part of his work with the International Republican Institute (IRI). “The same potential for political professionals is there in Tunisia and in Egypt as there was, and there still is, in Central and Eastern Europe.
“You’ve got a blooming democracy,” he says. “You have parties and politicians who really don’t know how to operate in a democracy, and they’re dying, figuratively, for advice.”
Egypt and Tunisia plan to hold their first truly competitive elections before the end of the year. It’ll be a new experience for their nascent political classes, and one that is sure to come with the involvement of U.S. consultants.
(With a ban on TV and radio advertising in the country, moderate parties in Tunisia are using web videos to spread their message ahead of elections later this month.)
In Libya, American groups and strategists were barred from involvement in the country’s politics under Gadhafi, but since troops loyal to the Transitional National Council (TNC) captured Tripoli, that has begun to change as well. With an eye toward the country’s first post-Gadhafi elections, groups like IRI have already established contacts within the TNC.
While Washington hasn’t decided how much to spend on democracy building in Libya, what is certain is that the region’s fledgling democracies will all need international assistance to hold credible elections—the first and most important opening for U.S.-based consultants.
“Democracy building is always step one, and that’s what gets everyone in the door,” says Tyler Harber, a Washington-based consultant with experience in post-war Iraq.
The key, he says, is getting in on the ground floor. Pollsters are among the most valuable initial players, often contracting with government agencies or NGOs from the beginning to provide much needed public opinion research. Once consultants are on the ground through work with IRI or similar groups, they often have a leg up on competitors who enter the fray once some of the dust has cleared.
Along with helping construct the basic building blocks of democracy in the Arab world, American consultants also anticipate a market to dispense more traditional campaign advice given the abundance of parties and political players jostling for power.
“There’s a lot of need for just being able to get some basic skills—election targeting, list building, for example,” says Cathy Allen, a consultant who has worked in the region.
With political parties and candidates that need advice, Western businesses that need guidance through the region’s halls of power, and State Department and USAID staff engaged on the ground, “there’s work right now for Western consultants in the Middle East, there’s no doubt about that,” says Aristotle’s John Phillips.
It’s the birth of an entirely new—yet potentially perilous—market for U.S.-based political consultants to peddle their expertise.
Around the world, American political consultants are sought after for their know-how, and in many cases for the prestige they bring to a campaign. American firms make hundreds of millions of dollars a year from overseas work, according to some industry estimates. In Latin America, candidates often size each other up with the phrase, “Show me your gringo.”
In Eastern Europe, noteworthy presidential contests often feature prominent U.S. political consultants on either side. Last year’s election in Ukraine, for instance, included leading strategists from the 2008 presidential campaigns of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain.
In the Arab world, though, work for U.S. political consultants has been more limited. Of the Arab League’s 21 current members, only three—Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq—are considered partially democratic, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index. Americans have worked on elections for other League members such as Jordan, but the results tended to leave power where it was—firmly with the monarchy.
But now that the spirit of revolution has taken hold, the Arab world is officially “a developing market, which is the biggest opportunity for American consultants,” says Phillips.
From a strategist’s perspective, it’s a blank slate—a rare opportunity given other areas of the globe where political parties and campaigns are either already consumers of U.S. consulting services or reliant on their own home-grown talent.
For now, many American consultants are working on generating new contacts across the region and trying to keep a close eye on emerging political players. Some are taking a “wait and see” approach to their solicitations of clients in Cairo, Tunis and Tripoli. Tony Marsh, whose firm has done extensive business in the Middle East, has sent proposals to prospective clients in Cairo, but hasn’t traveled there since Mubarak resigned. He’s angling for a letter of invitation before he buys a plane ticket, “so that I actually have some assurance I’m going to be meeting with a decision maker.”
Marsh compared finding work in Cairo to his experience in Baghdad, where he flies to make a pitch in person because of established relationships with many Iraqi politicos.
“Until you have that relationship, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to run over there and make a presentation,” he says. “There are people I know who would just show up uninvited and spend two weeks waiting to get an appointment. I try to avoid that.”
Other U.S. consultants, who have already traveled to the region, are keeping a deliberately low profile given that some local political players are concerned about being aligned with American consultants.
“There’s a sense of pride that this is their revolution and that they caused this,” says one U.S. consultant who was recently in the region to meet with prospective clients. “If Americans were known to be working with a certain political party, other parties could use it against them.”
One way for Western consultants to get a better read on foreign political environments is by partnering with locals, or by establishing an overseas office. Making political contacts in foreign capitals—even in the Middle East—can actually be relatively easy, says Tad Devine, a Democratic consultant who has worked on national campaigns in Israel and across Europe.
“At that level of education, almost everybody speaks English,” he says. “The language barrier that you might encounter in a different part of the world, over there we wouldn’t encounter particularly with these people who seem to be at the head of the democratic movement, many of whom were educated in the United States.”
The greatest source of concern for consultants is also what’s worrying many U.S. policymakers—the political players in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are largely unknown, creating both political and economic uncertainty for stakeholders.
“Their sources of support are not well dentified,” says Marsh. “Their funds are not well defined.”
In short, getting paid for work could be problematic and figuring out whom to work for, potentially even tougher.
The optimism among U.S.-based consultants about the door opening to an entirely new market is tempered by a wish not to see history repeat itself. The fall of communism at the end of the 20th century was expected to reveal a constellation of Western-style democracies. Russia, with its vast resources and large population, was once considered the next frontier for campaign consulting.
After the Soviet Union fell, there were U.S. consultants involved in the first round of elections in Russia.
“Then [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin came in, and that whole sort of transition to his authoritative structure took over and opportunities to actually participate were stymied for American consultants,” Devine recalls.
It underscores concerns that any political change in North Africa could be undone as quickly as it was sparked. The revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya were spontaneous, seeming to launch from a single act of protest that resonated with millions of disenfranchised Arabs. Many observers trace the genesis of the upheaval to a single Tunisian, Mohamed Bouazizi.
The 26-year-old man was his family’s breadwinner. Local authorities hobbled his income, though, routinely disrupting his produce business by confiscating his merchandise and scales. When a female officer tried to take equipment from his cart this past December, Bouazizi resisted. Family and friends told Al-Jazeera English that he was slapped and thrown to the ground. When he attempted to lodge a grievance with local officials, no one would see him. He left, returned with paint thinner, and set himself on fire in front of a government building. He died almost two weeks later from his injuries.
With the help of social media outlets and digital communication, the significance of Bouazizi’s death was amplified. It touched off a backlash in Tunisia against Ali’s government, uniting generations and classes against his 23-year rule. Four weeks after Bouazizi’s self-immolation, Ali fled.
Emboldened by reports from Tunisia, Egyptian activists soon began what turned into an 18-day protest in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. By mid-February, Mubarak had resigned and the Egyptian military pledged to follow the people’s will and hold free elections. A timetable for a parliamentary vote and a possible presidential race is expected early this fall.
These upcoming elections are likely to go a long way toward determining whether consulting opportunities in the region will grow, according to David Denehy, a campaign consultant who has worked extensively in the Middle East. “For this democratic spring, or whatever you want to call it, to continue, we need to make sure that the elections are competitive, that they’re representative of the people’s will and that good people get elected who will carry that tradition forward.
“I don’t know who the right people are,” he admits. “But it behooves us to work for people who believe in fair and competitive elections.”
Before this spring’s protests, Egypt, Tunisia and Libya lacked unified oppositions that could organize alternatives to the status quo and gain international legitimacy. The strongest opposition group in Egypt, for instance, was the Muslim Brotherhood. A prime concern now is that extremists could use ballot boxes to seize power in North Africa. And some worry that U.S. dollars could inadvertently tip the scales against pro-Western politicians.
The White House has allocated $65 million for fostering democracy and governance in Egypt since this spring’s unrest, according to the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), a nonpartisan research group. An additional $100 million has been set aside for developing Egypt’s economy, though the money could also go toward the training of Egypt’s political parties.
Another $32 million will go toward democracy and governance in Tunisia, and that’s only the beginning, says POMED Executive Director Stephen McInerney.
“There will be more [money] put to both Egypt and Tunisia. There’s a lot of concern,” says McInerney. “Things are very uncertain.”
The money will flow primarily through USAID, the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy Labor and Human Rights, IRI and the National Democratic Institute (NDI). The two groups kept offices in Egypt before the revolution. (The groups were banned from Tunisia under Ben Ali’s reign.) Both organizations are now beefing up their regional presence and want to expand their trainings.
The Muslim Brotherhood is expected to enter Egypt’s upcoming parliamentary elections with its new Freedom and Justice Party. U.S. State Department officials worry that freer elections in Egypt might give the Muslim Brotherhood the chance to control the country’s army—one of the region’s most powerful—and its vital shipping lanes, which has them scrambling for ways to help create a competitive political environment.
“By most estimation, the Muslim Brotherhood’s new party is among the better organized and prepared for electoral competition,” says a Washington-based consultant who works with USAID and the State Department. “The thrust of our efforts are being placed on those other groups that are new.”
Washington has made it clear that it doesn’t want to exclude the Muslim Brotherhood from the Democratic process, but according to two consultants with previous experience in Mid-East democracy building, a policy of inclusiveness could result in U.S funds being used to train Muslim Brotherhood activists. IRI and NDI routinely hold open training sessions, which members of the Freedom and Justice Party or its political allies could, at least in theory, attend.
A State Department official dismissed that notion, claiming it would be anathema to the Muslim Brotherhood’s supporters to be seen as accepting U.S. help.
“The Muslim Brotherhood issue is something that’s still being worked out at a policy level,” adds the consultant.
It’s just one of several political minefields American consultants will have to navigate as they pursue business in burgeoning Arab democracies. Consultants who worked in Iraq’s recent elections spoke of colleagues who took on clients whose interests diverged from those of the U.S. Many think something similar could happen in North Africa, not necessarily because of the moral rectitude of the consultants involved, but because many of the political players and their affiliations remain unknown.
“Right now, it’s just such a melee that you don’t really know who’s who and that’s going to take some time to sort out,” says Denehy. “I think that is what’s making people wary. Most folks aren’t quote, unquote ‘political whores,’ or whatever you want to call them. They want to work for people whose views and interests they see as positive.”
In Egypt, he says, “I think there’s still uncertainty about that.”
Moreover, there are indications that the desire for democracy in Egypt may not run very deep. In its April poll for IRI, Williams’ firm asked respondents to identify the single “biggest problem” facing the country. More than a third polled said the economy was the top issue. Only two percent cited the need for “free elections.”
“Really the question is—is what’s happening in Tunisia and Egypt and Yemen going to go forward to places like Syria and Saudi Arabia and Iran?” says Marsh. “If it does, wow, there’s going to be tremendous opportunities. But if it doesn’t work in Egypt, it’s not going to work very well in a lot of other places.”
Correction: This story originally identified IRI as the international arm of the Republican Party. IRI is an independent 501(c)(3).
Sean J. Miller is a political writer based in Los Angeles.