Africa, Defense, Human rights, Middle East, New in Lobbying

Egypt taps former top Armed Services aide as Dems weigh military aid cuts

A former top congressional defense aide turned industry lobbyist has joined Egypt’s stable of influencers as Cairo looks to stave off potential military aid cuts by the new Democratic majority in Washington.

Josh Holly and his one-man lobbying firm Holly Strategies Incorporated have signed a $10,000-a-month subcontracting agreement with Brownstein Hyatt to represent the Egyptian Embassy in Washington. The contract was effective Feb. 15 and lasts one year.

Holly served as communications director for the House Armed Services Committee under chairmen Duncan L. Hunter (R-Calif.) and Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) before leaving for the now-defunct Podesta Group in 2011. He also represents the government of Iraq as well as several defense firms including Lockheed Martin, which makes the F-16 fighter jets that form the backbone of the Egyptian Air Force.

According to his registration under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), Holly will “promote the interests of the Egyptian government in an effort to strengthen the bilateral relationship between the United States and the Arab Republic of Egypt.” His duties include “outreach to officials and staff in the executive and legislative branches, as well as non-governmental organizations.”

Holly’s hiring helps Brownstein round out its own lobbying team, which includes former House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.), former Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Nadeam Elshami, a longtime chief of staff to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Brownstein signed a $65,000-a-month contract with Egyptian Ambassador Motaz Zahran in November just days after Joe Biden defeated President Donald Trump, who had famously called Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi “my favorite dictator.”

Holly did not respond to a request for comment about his lobbying focus. His lobbying disclosure however indicates that outreach to his former committee will be a top priority.

Earlier this week he sent an email invitation to a virtual event to staffers for House freshmen Lisa McClain (R-Mich.), Ronny Jackson (R-Texas), Kai Kahele (D-Hawaii), all three of whom serve on the House Armed Services Committee, as well as to staffers for freshmen Barry Moore (R-Ala.), Diana Harshbarger (R-Tenn.) and Tony Gonzales (R-Texas). And on March 3, he discussed the US-Egypt relationship by phone with Jonathan Lord, a professional staff member on the committee who previously served as the Iraq country director at the Department of Defense (DoD).

“Because of his experience on HASC, [Holly] likely has good contacts within DoD and the military on the US side, in addition to industry,” said Seth Binder, the advocacy officer at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), an advocacy group that supports conditioning US assistance to Egypt to progress on democracy and human rights. “That’s one place [the Egyptians] know they have allies, and so they may be trying to reinforce [that].”

The lobbying push comes as the Biden administration and key lawmakers have vowed to prioritize human rights in the US relationship with Egypt after four years during which President Trump shielded Cairo from Congress. During the presidential campaign Biden vowed “no more blank checks” for Sisi, while Secretary of State Antony Blinken last month told Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry that human rights would henceforth be “central” to the bilateral relationship, according to a State Department read-out of the call, while also raising concerns about Egypt’s recent purchase of Russian S-35 fighter jets,

Key members of Congress have also weighed in, including HASC Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.).

Smith was the top Democrat on the committee back in 2013 when Sisi, who was then the army chief, led the military coup that toppled President Mohammed Morsi. At the time Smith applauded the Barack Obama administration’s to withhold military aid, saying in a statement that while the US “relationship with Egypt is of vital importance, but so is encouraging the development of democratic values.”


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And just last summer following the detention of several Egyptian-American activists, Smith led a congressional letter to then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggesting that US military aid should be withheld because of Cairo’s perceived failure to take “sustained and effective steps to improve human rights, release political prisoners, and provide detainees with due process.”

“We ask you to make clear to the Egyptian government that closer security relations and bilateral ties are contingent on improving the human rights situation in Egypt,” the letter states.

Binder pointed out that the Biden administration has three main pressure points regarding the annual $1.3 billion annual military aid package to Egypt, which Cairo has received since 1987 following its 1979 peace treaty with Israel:

  • Because the aid follows a two-year cycle, the administration has until Sept. 30 to decide whether to withhold $300 million that Congress conditioned on progress on human rights for the 2019-2020 fiscal year (under Trump the State Department used a security waiver to get around the certification);
  • The administration will have the same choice to make next year after Congress adopted similar restrictions back in December 2020 (those restrictions are tighter than previously and carve out $75 million that cannot be released unless the State Department certifies that Egypt has released political prisoners);
  • And the State Department can also adjust the assistance for next fiscal year when it releases its budget request for next fiscal year later this spring.

While the Appropriations committees handle the $1.3 billion aid package via their oversight of the State Department’s Foreign Military Financing (FMF) program, Binder pointed out that Congress can also authorize military spending via accounts that are handled by the Pentagon, such as border security.

“There is possibilities for Egypt to get military aid through defense accounts, not restricted to [State Department programs],” he said. Lobbying the Armed Services committees “could be a way for them to try to pursue possible assistance that way.”