AFP: Egyptian and U.S. Officials Try to End Crisis Over Egypt’s Crackdown on NGOs

January 30, 2012

US, Egypt seek to defuse NGO row
Agence France Presse

By Lachlan Carmichael

An Egyptian delegation and US officials were to hold talks in Washington Monday to try to defuse a deepening row that has seen a number of American citizens hole up at the US embassy in Cairo.

Egypt's military rulers, charged with leading the transition to democratic rule, have slapped a travel ban on several US citizens working for pro-democracy NGOs, preventing them from leaving the country.

A US State Department official confirmed to AFP that "a handful" of US citizens had taken shelter at the American mission while awaiting Egypt's permission to depart.

In what would be a dramatic sign of a fraying alliance -- one that has been the lynchpin of US diplomacy in the Middle East -- The Washington Post and The New York Times quoted officials saying the Americans feared arrest.

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta telephoned Egypt's military ruler, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, at the weekend and asked him to lift the travel ban on US citizens working for US-funded pro-democracy non-government organizations, including the International Republican Institute (IRI).

The ban has further strained US-Egyptian ties after Cairo prosecutors last month stormed the offices of the IRI, the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House as part of a probe into allegations of illegal foreign funding.

They were among 17 offices of local and international NGOs raided. The crackdown was part of a wider campaign by Egypt's military rulers to silence dissent after months of criticism of its human rights record, analysts said.

The State Department, which said four or five Americans have been banned from leaving, has also urged the Egyptian authorities to lift the restriction immediately.

But there was no sign the Egyptians were moving to do so, even though Cairo runs the risk of losing billions of dollars of US aid if it doesn't.

"We can confirm that a handful of US citizens have opted to stay in the embassy compound in Cairo while waiting for permission to depart Egypt," a US State Department official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

A high-ranking Egyptian military delegation was to hold talks Monday in Washington with officials from the Pentagon, the State Department and Congress, a US defense department official said on condition of anonymity.

A State Department official told AFP: "This trip was planned long before this whole flare-up with the NGOs. Obviously, I'm sure that (the NGO issue) will come up in meetings."

But he added: "This is more routine than a specifically targeted trip."

The State Department has hinted that funds could be withheld under a bill enacted last month linking the aid to democratic progress, and the bill's sponsor, Senator Patrick Leahy, said Congress is ready to apply pressure.

Leahy's legislation, part of a 2012 omnibus bill signed by President Barack Obama on December 23, offers Egypt $250 million in economic aid, and provides the authority to forgive up to $500 million of debt to the United States.

It also provides for $1.5 billion in annual military aid, but Egypt's military leaders must convince US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that they are backing the transition to civilian rule.

That, Leahy's office said, includes "holding free and fair elections, and protecting due process and freedom of expression, association, and religion, and abiding by the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty."

Clinton could decide to waive the conditions for national security reasons.