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Obama Aides to Meet Egyptian Delegation Amid Rift Over Groups

An Egyptian delegation is meeting at the White House tomorrow with members of President Barack Obama’s national security team as the U.S. presses the government in Cairo to ease restrictions on democracy and human-rights organizations, an administration official said.

The visit was planned before Egypt earlier this month blocked some Americans working with non-governmental organizations from leaving the country, according to the official, who wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly. The discussions will cover a range of issues in addition to the restrictions on the organizations. The Egyptians also will meet with Pentagon officials.

Egyptian authorities are preventing Americans working for U.S.-based non-governmental organizations, including the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, from leaving the country pending a decision on whether to put them on trial in a dispute over the groups’ lack of official registration with the government. Several of the democracy advocates have taken refuge at the U.S. embassy in Cairo.

Egypt has received an average of $2 billion a year in aid from the U.S. since 1979, tied to the Camp David peace accord with Israel, largely for military purposes, according to the Congressional Research Service, the non-partisan research arm of Congress. To continue the assistance, the Obama administration must certify to Congress that the country is making progress toward democracy.

Transition to Democracy

Navy Captain John Kirby, a spokesman for the Pentagon, said the delegation from the Egyptian Ministry of Defense is in the U.S. this week to provide updates on the nation’s “transition to democracy and consult on a wide range of security issues.”

The Egyptian officials are in Tampa today, meeting with officials of the U.S. military’s combatant command for the Middle East and Central Asia, which includes Egypt. They’re scheduled to hold meetings in Washington starting tomorrow and running through Feb. 3.

Friction over NGO restrictions increased after Sam LaHood, the transportation secretary’s son and resident country director of the International Republican Institute in Egypt, was stopped on Jan. 21 from boarding a flight to leave Egypt.

Obama had called Egyptian Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of Egypt’s interim ruling body, a day earlier and stressed the importance of allowing non-governmental organizations to operate freely. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last weekend made his second call to Tantawi on the NGO issue.

Message to Delegation

Charles Dunne, director of Middle East and North Africa programs at Freedom House, one of the American NGOs targeted by the Egyptian government, said administration officials must tell the Egyptians “that this is taken very seriously by the U.S. government” for certification of continued aid.

Freedom House estimates that 400 American and Egyptian NGO’s working in Egypt have been similarly targeted for harassment, said Dunne, a former U.S. diplomat in Cairo.

“It’s a pretty broad-based assault on Egyptian society,” he said in an interview.

The U.S. Congress, concerned that Egypt’s military council or hard-liners might thwart the country’s transition to democracy, imposed conditions on aid to Egypt in its funding legislation starting in the current fiscal year.

The law prohibits releasing military assistance to Egypt unless Secretary of State Hillary Clinton certifies that Egypt’s government is “supporting the transition to civilian government,” including free and fair elections, freedom of expression, association and religion and due process of law. Egypt also must uphold its 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

Military Link

Efforts to form a new Egyptian government almost a year after President Hosni Mubarak was forced from office by widespread protests have been marked by criticism from human rights groups about repression by military officials

The military link is pivotal for U.S. influence in Egypt and will be even more important as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Salafi movement rise to power through elections, said Paul Sullivan, a professor at the National Defense University in Washington who formerly taught at the American University in Cairo.

“It’s getting ratcheted up over here, it’s getting ratcheted up over there, and if we’re not careful, it will spin out of control,” Sullivan said.

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