August in Cairo can be unpleasant even for longtime denizens of the Egyptian capital. With temperatures soaring into the triple digits, many of the city’s more fortunate residents head north to summer homes near Alexandria on the Mediterranean Sea.
For Omar Bassiouny, managing partner of Cairo’s Matouk Bassiouny, it wasn’t the heat, but clouds of tear gas that convinced him it was time to leave town. The offices of his 40-lawyer firm, which forged an alliance with DLA Piper in 2005, sit behind Cairo’s Four Seasons Hotel, about a mile from the pitched battles playing out between Egypt’s dueling political factions in Tahrir Square.
“We had lawyers wearing gas masks around the office,” says Bassiouny, who spoke with The Am Law Daily by phone Thursday from Santa Monica, where he was vacationing with his family. “I don’t think I’ve taken two weeks off in years, but there have been times [this year] where we’ve had to close our office for an entire week.”
Plagued by a faltering economy and the failure of secularists and Islamists to agree on a new constitution, Egypt was already in a tailspin when the country’s military overthrew its democratically elected Islamist government in early July. To Bassiouny, the events that have unfolded since then have been dispiriting.
“There can be no alternative but democracy,” says the lawyer, who deplores the shootings of Islamist protesters by security forces, but is a supporter of the so-called roap map to democracy promised by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, commander-in-chief of Egypt’s armed forces. “Egypt is not Syria.”
Bassiouny sees three possible future outcomes for Egypt: military dictatorship, a low-intensity civil war, or democracy. He’s hopeful for the latter, but inclined to accept a “benevolent dictator” for the time being in order to prevent the second option.
Benevolent dictators have a habit of being pro-business, something that the Muslim Brotherhood–led government of President Mohamed Morsi was struggling to grasp before it was deposed in July. Bassiouny says his firm offered its services, pro bono, to Morsi’s economic advisers on how to enact reforms and craft policies that would entice foreign investors. But he never heard back.
“Morsi wasn’t ready to lead, we were on our way toward a theological dictatorship,” says Bassiouny, who says his firm held meetings in the aftermath of Egypt’s democratic elections in 2012 on how to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Most major firms doing business in Egypt had been caught between the Muslim Brotherhood and the old order embodied by longtime president Hosni Mubarak, who ended his 30-year reign with his February 2011 resignation in the early days of the Arab Spring. And as The Am Law Daily has previously reported, Cairo’s general postrevolution optimism didn’t hide the fact that Mubarak’s abrupt ouster caught many foreign firms operating in the city by surprise.
Though two of Bassiouny’s cousins worked in Mubarak’s cabinet, he says he decided to back the protesters—at the time a united group—after the government shut down Egypt’s Internet access and cell phone service in an effort to stifle dissent. The move “personally offended” Bassiouny, who says he encouraged his firm’s employees to take part in the revolution. He wistfully recalls joining his colleagues, countrymen, and then-pregnant wife in a confrontation with security forces on the Nile-spanning 6th October Bridge.
“That day really changed my life and priorities,” Bassiouny says. “And when Mubarak stepped down I popped a bottle of champagne!”
In the aftermath of Mubarak’s resignation, Bassiouny says his firm decided it would try to stay out of the political fray, accepting both Muslim Brotherhood clients and those with ties to the former regime, as long as the work was legal and the client “paid their bills on time.” (Bassiouny says he politely declined an offer to join the Muslim Brotherhood.)
During Morsi’s yearlong reign, Bassiouny remained busy with M&A work. His firm predominantly advises foreign investors in Egypt, including Emirates National Bank in connection with its $500 million acquisition of BNP Paribas’s Egyptian operations last December. But as the country’s political situation began to deteriorate, Bassiouny noticed that the deal work was starting to dry up.
“The political uncertainty definitely turns off investors,” Bassiouny says. “Of the 14 or 15 transactions we were doing, about half have been postponed or canceled, which actually isn’t so bad. I was hoping to keep one or two.”
Mubarak’s release from prison earlier this month—seven weeks after the military deposed Morsi—coincided with the start of a period of unrest that saw Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood–led Islamist supporters battling in the streets with state security forces.
With Egypt’s nascent political class having splintered and hopes that the country will see a true democratic transition dwindling, the security establishment has sought to reassert its control over everyday life much as it did during Mubarak’s time in office.
Despite those troublesome developments and a nighttime curfew in Cairo that has curtailed working hours, leading local firms affiliated with Am Law 100 shops are continuing to counsel clients.
A week ago, The Am Law Daily began contacting the heads of a handful of Am Law 100 firms with offices or affiliated firms in Cairo, but none besides Bassiouny were available for comment by the time of this story. Some were out of the office, while others preferred to let their firms speak for them.
Crowell & Moring corporate partner Walid Hegazy, the managing partner of his firm’s Cairo-based affiliate Hegazy & Associates, has had a particularly busy year.
Hegazy was the secretary general of the Egyptian Islamic Finance Association (EIFA) earlier this year when the shura council—the upper house of Egypt’s parliament—approved a law for the regulation of sukuk, or Islamic bonds, which had been marginalized during Mubarak’s reign. (The EIFA is headed by Mohamed al-Beltagy, no relation to Muslim Brotherhood secretary-general Mohammed al-Beltagi, who was arrested this week on charges of inciting violence.)
But the Morsi government’s efforts to develop Islamic finance were short-lived. In late June, Hegazy was appointed head of the Egyptian Financial Supervisory Authority (EFSA) by the country’s former investment minister, Yahia Hamed, a former top Morsi aide and cofounder of the foreign relations committee for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP).
Ultimately, Hegazy was unable to assume leadership of the EFSA. Less than a week after his appointment, Egypt’s military moved to unseat Morsi, taking the Muslim Brotherhood leader into custody and installing a more compliant interim government in Cairo. The transitional government has left the top post at the EFSA unfilled, according to Ahram Online, the website of Egypt’s largest daily newspaper.
In early July, Hamed, a former Vodafone sales manager, wrote a column for The Guardian in which he vowed that Egyptians would restore their democracy. Hamed did not respond to a request for comment about his selection of Hegazy to head the EFSA. Hegazy, a frequent guest on state-backed Nile TV prior to Morsi’s ouster, also did not respond to a request for comment. (Hegazy is not related to Mostafa Hegazy, an adviser to acting Egyptian president Adly Mansour, who is also a lawyer.)
A Crowell spokeswoman told The Am Law Daily that the firm’s Cairo office is operating on a schedule that complies with the city’s nighttime curfew. “On a few occasions, we have closed the office according to government recommendations on closures of businesses and government offices,” said Crowell in its statement. “We are continuing to monitor the situation daily.”
Baker & McKenzie, the world’s largest firm by attorney head count, has also been caught up in Egypt’s swirling political winds. The firm’s Cairo affiliate, Helmy, Hamza & Partners, had enjoyed a close relationship with the Mubarak regime.
Name partner Taher Helmy, the cofounder of the firm’s Cairo office and a former head of the U.S.–Egypt Business Council and Egyptian Center for Economic Studies (ECES), advised Mubarak’s government on the privatization of state assets over the past 20 years. Helmy was also a close confidant of Mubarak and his sons Alaa and Gamal, who was keen on succeeding his father as president until the 2011 revolution.
Mubarak’s family accumulated billions during his tenure at the top, and following the revolution the country’s former strongman was jailed on charges of being complicit in the deaths of six protesters during the 2011 uprising, while his sons were imprisoned on corruption charges.
Alaa and Gamal Mubarak were temporarily freed in June to await trial in a stock fraud case. An Egyptian court overturned earlier this year the elder Mubarak’s conviction that he allowed the killing of protesters, and last week the country’s former ruler was released from detention to house arrest as he awaits retrial. (Patton Boggs foreign affairs adviser Frank Wisner II, a former U.S. ambassador named special envoy to Egypt two years ago, recently called Mubarak’s release from prison “good news” and said the U.S. needs to maintain strong relations with Cairo.)
Helmy, a member of Baker & McKenzie’s strategic planning and policy committees who was the first Arab lawyer admitted before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1979, didn’t stick around to see what his immediate fate might become in post-Mubarak Egypt.
In an October 2011 story about the various U.S. connections to Mubarak’s regime, The Washington Post reported on Helmy’s role implementing economic reforms that benefited friends of Mubarak like steel magnate Ahmed Ezz, who was sentenced last year to seven years in prison for laundering $3 billion from the Egyptian state. (The sentence was on top of a 10-year prison term Ezz received in 2011 for a scheme involving the illegal sale of steel licenses.)
The Post noted that after being asked to step down as head of ECES, Helmy and his family left Cairo for London. He remained in the United Kingdom at least through 2012, according to British publication The Lawyer, which noted that he continued to oversee the firm’s Cairo office from abroad. (Helmy also had a $6.1 million apartment in New York overlooking Central Park, which property records show he sold for an undisclosed sum in December 2012.)
Though Helmy—who spoke out in support of Egyptian protesters before Mubarak decided to step down—has not been formally charged with any wrongdoing, he knows all too well the unpredictable nature of Egyptian politics.
During a 2008 commencement speech he gave at the American University in Cairo, Helmy discussed the death of his father, Samir, the former head of Egypt’s Central Auditing Agency, who was killed by Islamist militants during the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat.
Contacted for comment about the state of Baker & McKenzie’s Egyptian base, Borys Dackiw, the managing partner of the firm’s Middle East practice, deferred to a spokesman. The leaders of the firm’s Cairo office—Helmy and Mohamad Talaat—also did not return requests for an interview. (Talaat currently chairs the legal affairs committee for the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt, which Helmy once served as president.)
A Baker & McKenzie spokesman told The Am Law Daily that the firm’s Cairo office remains operational under Helmy’s leadership. “We continue to monitor the situation and to prioritize the safety of our staff and their families,” the firm said, having told The Lawyer last year that Helmy had not permanently relocated to London.
Baker & McKenzie joined several other firms last year in advising on Africa’s largest-ever project finance deal, a $3.7 billion agreement for the Egyptian Refining Company to construct a refinery in Mostorod on the outskirts of Cairo. Banking and finance partner Mohamed Ghannam and associate Ghada El Ehwany in Cairo led the deal from Baker & McKenzie.
Another firm with an outpost in Cairo is Dentons, the global legal giant formed earlier this year following the three-way merger between SNR Denton, Salans, and Fraser Milner Casgrain. Dentons has had an office in Egypt’s capital since 1964 through legacy British firm Denton Wilde Sapte.
J. Michael Lacey, the managing partner of Dentons’s Cairo base, was traveling in the United States this week and unavailable for comment. But a firm spokeswoman told The Am Law Daily that its local office has remained open for business despite the recent unrest.
“The office is very busy with client work and, depending on of course how current events develop, we expect that to continue,” according to the statement issued by Dentons, which notes that the safety of its staff is paramount. “We are pleased to report that, so far and thanks to the commitment of our local team, we have maintained our normal working hours and continue to provide timely and quality advice to our clients as usual.”
British firm Trowers & Hamlins is the only other major foreign firm with a presence in Cairo. Sara Hinton, the managing partner of that office, which merged with a local Egyptian firm in early 2011, is out of the office until September 1 and unavailable for comment.
Meanwhile, other global firms that had their eye on Egypt appear to have taken a step back as the political situation unfolds.
Shearman & Sterling international arbitration head Emmanuel Gaillard told The Lawyer in June that his firm was considering launching an Egyptian office as a result of growing disputes work in the region. A Shearman spokesman told The Am Law Daily this week that a Cairo office is still under consideration, but that the firm has no “concrete” plans at this time.
Norton Rose Fulbright, a 3,800-lawyer firm formed in early June, announced that same month its plans to expand its network in Africa, with a potential Cairo launch the farthest on the horizon. A firm spokeswoman now says Norton Rose Fulbright currently has “no plans to open an office in Egypt.”
As Egypt’s political situation has worsened, many of the big deals getting done involve Western companies exiting their investments in the country.
Earlier this year Clifford Chance advised Qatar’s QNB Group on its nearly $2 billion acquisition of a 77 percent stake in the Egyptian unit of French banking giant Societe Generale. This week Vinson & Elkins and Weil, Gotshal & Manges grabbed lead roles on Apache’s $3.1 billion sale of a third of its Egyptian oil and gas holdings to China’s Sinopec, according to sibling publication The Asian Lawyer. (Other transactions such as a $1.8 billion bid by Russian oligarch Mikhail Fridman’s Altimo Holdings & Investments—advised by Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom—for a 48 percent stake in Egypt’s Orascom Telecom fell through in June.)
The ongoing uncertainty in Egypt comes at a time when the country has no U.S. lobbyists on its payroll.
Records on file with the U.S. Department of Justice under the Foreign Agents Registration Act show that lobbying contracts inked by the Mubarak regime with the Podesta Group, The Livingston Group, and The Moffett Group lapsed in January 2012. The trio formed the PLM Group, which split roughly $90,000 in monthly lobbying fees paid by the Egyptian government, according to Politico.
Since then no U.S. lobbying firm has stepped up to advocate for Egypt’s interests, even as critics stateside have called on the Obama administration to curtail its $1.3 billion in annual aid to the country’s military. (The U.S., which also released $250 million in economic aid to Egypt in May, has canceled a biennial joint military training exercise scheduled for mid-September.)
Foreign Policy reported this month that Israel’s lobby in Washington, D.C., led by the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), has been quietly seeking to muster support in the Beltway for the new military-backed government in Cairo.
Israel, which had its share of conflicts with Morsi’s Islamist agenda, remains concerned about a deteriorating security situation in the Sinai, where the Jewish state has recently bolstered its border security as attacks by militants threaten a multinational peacekeeping force on the Egyptian peninsula, according to news reports.
Other groups in the U.S. have been vocal in supporting different groups within Egypt.
Last week the American Center for Law and Justice, a Washington, D.C.–based public interest law firm that advocates for Christian causes, organized a rally in the capital to protest U.S. policy in Egypt and media coverage that it claims overlooks the plight of the country’s Coptic Christians.
Bassiouny, the cohead of DLA’s affiliated firm in Cairo, says the real challenge for Egypt will be in reaching a democratic consensus on a government that will pursue economic policies that help bridge the widespread disparity in the distribution of wealth. That will be especially difficult in a country where almost half of the electorate is illiterate.
“It’s not impossible,” Bassiouny says, citing India as an example. “But democratization is easier said than done. The next few months will be critical.”