CAIRO — The Pentagon's top general met Saturday with the head of Egypt's ruling military council amid the fraying of bilateral relations over a criminal case against 16 American civil society workers.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey spoke with Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and other members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has ruled Egypt since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak last year.
Official statements on the meeting gave no details on their talks about the grim backdrop of the visit — Egypt's crackdown on American nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs. Egypt is prosecuting 43 NGO workers from such U.S.-funded groups as the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute. At least 16 Americans, including the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, are among those facing charges of illegally receiving foreign funds.
Details on the meeting were scarce. The Egyptian state news agency MENA issued only a brief, vague item about Dempsey and Tantawi, saying that the generals discussed, "the depth of the strategic relationship between Washington and Cairo." The report made no mention of NGOs.
Privately, Pentagon officials said that Dempsey would deliver a stern message on the NGO issue. Publicly, the Pentagon struck a different tone, pitching the visit as a meeting of old friends. Marine Col. Dave Lapan, Dempsey's spokesman, said the NGO case was among a "wide range of issues" discussed.
"We will not, however, further describe the contents and nature of their private discussions," Lapan said in an email.
For decades, Egypt has served as a reliable U.S. ally — upholding a peace treaty with Israel and keeping Islamist radicals at bay — and in return received $1.3 billion each year in military aid from the United States. Outrage in Washington has prompted calls from the highest offices to cut that military aid if authorities don't ease the crackdown on American pro-democracy activists and stick to a timetable for handing over power to a civilian authority.
Sameh Seif al Yazal, a retired Egyptian general and frequent commentator on the military, played down the political dimensions of the problem.
He said the uproar in Washington over the case has obscured what he considers four simple linchpins of the case: some of the NGOs operated without licenses, some opened offices in other provinces without government approval, they received money through back channels, and allegedly funneled money earmarked for poverty and healthcare initiatives to U.S.-friendly political parties.
"It's not political. They broke the law," Yazal said. "If some Egyptian broke the law in the United States, they'd punish the Egyptian."
While the scrutiny of foreign NGOs began under Mubarak's regime, which blocked many of them from the proper registration process, the issue exploded on Dec. 29, when elite Egyptian forces raided offices belonging to 17 Egyptian and international NGOs.
Prosecutors accompanying the forces seized documents, computers, cell phones and financial records before sealing the offices. Only a handful of the 16 American defendants in the case still reside in Egypt; at least three are holed up at the U.S. embassy in Cairo to avoid arrest. Americans affiliated with the NGOs couldn't be reached for comment.
Yazal, the retired officer who's still close to members of the military council, said the generals had made their stand and should now let the matter play out quietly before a judge. And the Americans, he added, should continue high-profile interaction to make sure the fracas doesn't do irreparable damage at a time when U.S. policy in the Middle East is playing catch-up to the changes brought on by the Arab Spring rebellions.
"Egypt wants America and America wants Egypt, so this trivial matter won't affect the deep, long-term strategic relations between the countries," Yazal said. "It wouldn't be wise for either side to further complicate the issue."
Nancy A. Youssef contributed from Washington.
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