An Egyptian military delegation visiting Washington canceled talks with U.S. senators because the group was called home amid a dispute over charges against American pro-democracy workers, according to three U.S. senators.
The generals were scheduled to meet as early as yesterday with senators including Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who heads the Senate Armed Services Committee, John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the panel, and Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent. All three lawmakers said that the Egyptian delegation canceled at the last minute.
“I assume they were called home because it got too hot” with the charges announced against the Americans, Lieberman, a senior member of the armed services panel, said in an interview today.
Calls and e-mails to the Egyptian embassy weren’t immediately returned.
Obama administration officials and lawmakers have criticized Egypt’s plans to prosecute 43 people associated with non-governmental organizations. State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland said today that the group includes 16 Americans, about half of them no longer in Egypt.
The dispute has strained ties between the U.S. and Egyptian military leaders over the pace of the country’s transition to democracy and raised questions about the future of U.S. aid to Egypt.
‘Prohibited by Law’
Sam LaHood, who works for the International Republican Institute, and Julie Hughes, the Egypt country director for the National Democratic Institute, are among those who face prosecution, Judge Ashraf el-Ashmawy told reporters in Cairo yesterday. He said the groups are accused of “accepting funds and benefits from an international organization” to pursue an activity “prohibited by law” and carrying out “political training programs.”
The Washington-based groups are close to Republicans and Democrats in Congress. LaHood is the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former Republican House member.
McCain said in a Jan. 26 statement that he was watching “with growing alarm and outrage how the Egyptian government is treating U.S. non-governmental organizations that are working peacefully and transparently to support civil society in Egypt.”
Aid to Army
U.S. aid to Egypt, linked to a 1979 peace treaty with Israel, has averaged about $2 billion a year since then, according to the Congressional Research Service, the nonpartisan research arm of Congress. Most of the aid goes to Egypt’s army.
President Barack Obama must certify to Congress that Egypt is making progress toward democracy for the aid to continue. Levin said today that Obama shouldn’t certify that Egypt is making such progress.
“It is kind of hard to have a normal relationship with the country when we’ve got so many Americans tied up in our embassy,” Levin said in an interview today, referring to an undisclosed number of those facing charges who have sought the safety of the diplomatic compound.
McCain said it is necessary to have “every aspect of our relationship with Egypt examined” until the Americans are removed from any indictment and allowed to leave.
White House spokesman Jay Carney today reiterated the administration’s “grave concern” about the crackdown and said that concern is being discussed “with all levels of the Egyptian government.”
Egypt’s action could have consequences that “could potentially affect our relationship and could potentially affect the aid that we provide,” he told reporters without elaborating.
On Feb. 2 and Feb. 3, the generals met with State Department officials, including Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs Jeffrey Feltman and Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro.
The visits were part of a regular dialogue between the U.S. and Egypt on security assistance, Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, said on Feb. 3. He said issues related to NGOs were discussed. The Egyptian delegation also met last week with Defense Department officials and with members of Obama’s national security team. The Egyptians visited the U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base near Tampa, Florida.
Pentagon officials have said the dispute over the organizations should be resolved without jettisoning the U.S. relationship with Egypt.
Calling the General
“The bottom line is that the United States believes this issue needs to be resolved very quickly,” George Little, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters yesterday.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has twice called Egyptian Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of Egypt’s interim ruling body, to discuss the dispute, especially restrictions preventing the Americans involved from leaving the country.
Panetta said he told Tantawi: “Our ability to maintain that relationship is being impacted by how this matter is being handled, and so for that reason urged him to do everything in his power to try to allow these individuals the opportunity to be able to leave the country.”
Tantawi indicated he would “try to help,” Panetta told reporters traveling with him in Europe last week.
“He obviously has to deal now with the parliament, he has to deal with what is an independent judiciary,” Panetta said. “And I said, ‘Welcome to democracy, because I have the same responsibility to deal with the Congress, and they’re concerned about this issue.’”