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February 1, 2011 5:53 PM

Am Law Firms in Cairo React to Egyptian Unrest

Posted by Brian Baxter

Egypt
Every so often, Am Law 200 firms with offices in far-flung locales are faced with an international crisis that requires fancy footwork on the ground and cautionary statements from abroad. We saw it last year in Bangkok and, if the events unfolding in Tunisia, Egypt, and Jordan are any indication, it appears that the Middle East is the next flashpoint.

Only a handful of major international law firms have offices in Egypt, the sixteenth-largest nation in the world by population. But with millions of protesters crippling the country's economy, unnerving the West, and prompting longtime president Honsi Mubarak to announce he won't seek reelection in September, many lawyers are closely watching as events unfold.

Abdul Aziz Al-Yaqout, the regional managing partner of DLA Piper's offices in the Middle East, says that the firm's Cairo office is currently closed until further notice. Yaqout, who spoke to us from Kuwait City, says that the situation on the ground is "chaotic" and that the firm's employees are busy making sure that their families and property are safe.

Borys Dackiw, the head of Baker & McKenzie's Persian Gulf offices, told us in an e-mail that most businesses in Cairo were closed and that the firm would reevaluate the status of its operations there on Saturday. The firm said in a statement that all of its Cairo-based lawyers--the firm lists seven partners, two of counsel, and 31 associates on its Web site--and staffers were safe.

"For their continued safety, we have advised them to stay home until things stabilize and we can reopen our office," the firm said in its statement. "We will continue to monitor the situation closely."

We reached out to the head of Baker & McKenzie's Cairo office, M. Taher Helmy of affiliated firm Helmy, Hamza & Partners, but were unable to reach him several times since Friday. Helmy, who founded the firm's offices in Cairo and Riyadh, did speak with The Toronto Globe & Mail on Monday about the protesters' objections to a regime to which he has close ties.

Helmy, the chairman of the Egyptian Center for Economic Studies, has served as a key adviser to Mubarak and his investment banker son and presidential candidate, Gamal, in crafting economic liberalization reforms in the country over the past 20 years. Helmy believes those reforms, which launched a massive privatization program and slashed the size of Egypt's bureaucracy, have stalled during the past two years.

"What we achieved in our reforms was tremendous," Helmy told the Globe & Mail. "But...we're missing some vital components. There needs to be checks and balances in the market economy, and there needs to be a more equitable distribution of wealth. That's the real problem, and these young protesters are right to complain."

While the reforms are credited with spurring economic growth, they are also blamed by some for widening the divide between rich and poor in Egypt, as a new class of billionaires took control of formerly state-owned industries--creating  work for international firms in the process. (Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton represented one of those billionaires late last year on a $21.5 billion telecommunications merger. Meanwhile, Sullivan & Cromwell M&A partner Frank Aquila spoke to The New York Times's DealBook on Tuesday about what the Egyptian unrest could mean for dealmaking.)

While Helmy is quick to praise the protesters for their "extraordinary vigor and aspirations," he told the Globe & Mail that had it not been for the economic reforms he helped usher in under Mubarak, they "would not have had the educational and economic opportunities they enjoyed."

DLA Piper's Yaqout says that he has been in contact with his Cairo-based colleagues on a daily basis and that for the most part, they're trying to take care of themselves while adding their voices to the political debate occurring right now. When the firm's Cairo office is up and running, Yaqout says, it specializes in private equity, public and private M&A, and capital markets work. The firm established its DLA Matouk Bassiouny alliance six years ago.

Other international firms with offices in Cairo include SNR Denton and British firm Trowers & Hamlins.

An SNR Denton spokeswoman told The Am Law Daily that the firm had been able to establish contact with its Cairo office, which was opened by legacy British firm Denton Wilde Sapte in 1964 and is one of the oldest established in the region by an international firm. (Denton Wilde merged with Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal last year.)

"Our office has been established in Cairo since the 1960s and we thus have a long commitment to the country," SNR Denton CEO Howard Morris said in a statement. "We have naturally been following the situation very closely. Our paramount concern is for the safety and welfare of all our people."

SNR Denton's office in Egypt's capital employs U.S., U.K., and Egyptian lawyers. The office's managing partner, J. Michael Lacy, could not be reached for comment.

Trowers & Hamlins founded its Cairo office in 1999. Sara Hinton, the head of the office who holds dual British-Egyptian nationality, was also unavailable for comment, as was her banking and finance Cairo colleague Tim Armsby. Senior partner Jonathan Adlington and a Trowers spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment on the firm's Cairo operations.

The figure being touted as a possible leader of the Egyptian opposition, Nobel Peace Prize winner and former United Nations diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei, has his own legal ties. ElBaradei's father was a human rights lawyer who headed the Egyptian Bar Association and often tangled with Egypt's second president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, according to the Boston Globe.

ElBaradei followed in his father's footsteps, earning a law degree from New York University, where he served as an adjunct law professor from 1981 to 1987. (Click here for a story about ElBaradei by The National Law Journal, a sibling publication.)

Whatever emerges from the current chaos, Baker & McKenzie's Helmy told the Globe & Mail that his country has a long way to go before it becomes a true democracy. Should there be a transition that allows a more democratic government to take root, some lawyers believe that Egypt could become a bright spot in the Middle East.

"The situation is fluid, and we have to see whether there will be regime change or not," says Baker & McKenzie's Yaqout. "Then we have to see whether these protests turn into a more violent confrontation with the government."

Adds Yaqout: "Egypt has 80 million people, so it's a huge market sitting in a very strategic location. It also has a well-educated population and a lot of resources, so the potential is there in the long run, even if there's a change in government."

Photo: Getty Images

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