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US envoy`s business link to Egypt
By Robert Fisk in Cairo
Frank Wisner, President Barack Obama`s envoy to Cairo who infuriated the White House this weekend by urging Hosni Mubarak to remain President of Egypt, works for a New York and Washington law firm which works for the dictator`s own Egyptian government.
Mr Wisner`s astonishing remarks – `President Mubarak`s continued leadership is critical: it`s his opportunity to write his own legacy` – shocked the democratic opposition in Egypt and called into question Mr Obama`s judgement, as well as that of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The US State Department and Mr Wisner himself have now both claimed that his remarks were made in a `personal capacity`. But there is nothing `personal` about Mr Wisner`s connections with the litigation firm Patton Boggs, which openly boasts that it advises `the Egyptian military, the Egyptian Economic Development Agency, and has handled arbitrations and litigation on the [Mubarak] government`s behalf in Europe and the US`. Oddly, not a single journalist raised this extraordinary connection with US government officials – nor the blatant conflict of interest it appears to represent.
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Mr Wisner is a retired State Department 36-year career diplomat – he served as US ambassador to Egypt, Zambia, the Philippines and India under eight American presidents. In other words, he was not a political appointee. But it is inconceivable Hillary Clinton did not know of his employment by a company that works for the very dictator which Mr Wisner now defends in the face of a massive democratic opposition in Egypt.
So why on earth was he sent to talk to Mubarak, who is in effect a client of Mr Wisner`s current employers?
Patton Boggs states that its attorneys `represent some of the leading Egyptian commercial families and their companies` and `have been involved in oil and gas and telecommunications infrastructure projects on their behalf`. One of its partners served as chairman of the US-Egyptian Chamber of Commerce promoting foreign investment in the Egyptian economy. The company has also managed contractor disputes in military-sales agreements arising under the US Foreign Military Sales Act. Washington gives around $1.3bn (£800m) a year to the Egyptian military.
Mr Wisner joined Patton Boggs almost two years ago – more than enough time for both the White House and the State Department to learn of his company`s intimate connections with the Mubarak regime. The New York Times ran a glowing profile of Mr Wisner in its pages two weeks ago – but mysteriously did not mention his ties to Egypt.
Nicholas Noe, an American political researcher now based in Beirut, has spent weeks investigating Mr Wisner`s links to Patton Boggs. Mr Noe is also a former researcher for Hillary Clinton and questions the implications of his discoveries.
`The key problem with Wisner being sent to Cairo at the behest of Hillary,` he says, `is the conflict-of-interest aspect... More than this, the idea that the US is now subcontracting or `privatising` crisis management is another problem. Do the US lack diplomats?
`Even in past examples where presidents have sent someone `respected` or `close` to a foreign leader in order to lubricate an exit,` Mr Noe adds, `the envoys in question were not actually paid by the leader they were supposed to squeeze out!`
Patton Boggs maintains an `affiliate relationship` with Zaki Hashem, one of Egypt`s most prominent legal firms. It was founded in 1953 and Zaki Hashem himself was a cabinet minister under Mubarak`s predecessor, President Anwar Sadat, and later became head of the Egyptian Society for International Law.
By a further remarkable irony, one of Zaki Hashem`s senior advisers was Nabil al-Araby, one of the 25 leading Egyptian personalities just chosen by the protesters in Tahrir Square to demand the overthrow of Mubarak. Nabil al-Araby, a former member of the UN`s International Law Commission, told me yesterday that he ended his connection with Zaki Hashem three years ago and had `no idea` why Mr Wisner had come out in support of Mubarak`s continued rule. He himself believed it was essential Mubarak make a dignified but immediate exit. `The head must go,` he said.
When Frank Wisner joined Patton Boggs in March 2009, the company described him as `one of the nation`s most respected diplomats` who would provide clients with `strategic global advice concerning business, politics and international law`. The firm stated specifically that `it looks to Ambassador Wisner to use his expertise in the Middle East and India to assist its American and international clients.`
Stuart Pape, managing partner at Patton Boggs, said at the time that `it is a real coup for the firm to have Ambassador Wisner – one of the most experienced and highly regarded diplomats – join our ranks... His in-depth knowledge of global politics and the international financial world is a huge asset for our clients.`
We still do not know exactly what kind of `expertise` he has bestowed upon the dictator of Egypt. But his remarks at the weekend leave no room to doubt he advised the old man to cling on to power for a few more months. The vast network of companies with family connections to Mubarak`s regime is, of course, one of the targets of the pro-democracy demonstrators in Egypt.
A spokesman for the State Department said he `presumed` Mrs Clinton knew of Mr Wisner`s employment by Patton Boggs and the firm`s links with the Mubarak government, but refused to comment on any conflict of interest for the envoy. A spokesman for Patton Boggs could not be reached yesterday.
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