WASHINGTON — With $1.3 billion in annual U.S. military aid and a three-decade relationship hanging in the balance, U.S. officials said Tuesday that Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, would travel to Egypt to press for the criminal charges against at least 16 American nonprofit workers to be dropped.
The visit later this week by the top U.S. military official likely represents the strongest leverage the United States has in its effort to get Egypt's ruling generals to end a crackdown on American and Egyptian nonprofit groups. The White House and the State Department have unsuccessfully pressed the case with the Egypt's military council but no U.S. government department has worked more closely with the council over the years than the Pentagon has.
Officials said Dempsey would reinforce the message — echoing lawmakers on Capitol Hill — that unless Egypt scuttled its plan to try the American nonprofit workers on charges that their agencies illegally received foreign funds, the country seriously risked losing $1.3 billion annually in U.S. military aid.
The Egyptians "are going to be told to lay off the (nonprofit groups) or the money won't be forthcoming," said a person familiar with the deliberations, who wasn't authorized to be quoted because of the issue's sensitivity.
Two Egyptian generals were scheduled to meet Tuesday in Washington with Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joseph Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, but the Egyptians abruptly canceled the sessions and cut short their U.S. visit. McCain, in particular, has been extremely critical of the crackdown and has called for the entire U.S.-Egyptian relationship to be re-examined if the charges and a travel ban on the Americans aren't lifted.
Privately, some U.S. officials have described cutting off aid as premature, saying that the threat, if overplayed, could harm long-term American interests.
However, in a phone call last week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, that Congress might cut off aid. Dempsey is expected to meet with Tantawi and with his Egyptian counterpart, Gen. Sami Anan.
Publicly, the Pentagon said Dempsey would be "consulting with friends. He is not delivering ultimatums," said his spokesman, Marine Col. David Lapan.
But the long U.S.-Egyptian military relationship has been transformed since the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak last year, with Egyptian generals seemingly willing to risk American funding to prove to the public that Egypt's days as a puppet state are over.
Many Egyptians have long regarded the annual military aid package as a bribe to safeguard key U.S. interests — contain Islamist influence, uphold a peace treaty with Israel and keep the Suez Canal open to American warships — even when they ran counter to popular opinion.
The arrangement mostly ran smoothly for the 30 years of Mubarak's authoritarian rule, until the uprising swept to power an array of new political forces that are eager to redraw the relationship. Analysts say the case against the American workers signals the emergence of a more assertive Egyptian military that's seeking popular support by displaying what one commentator called "its anti-American credentials."
Despite the worst rift in bilateral relations in decades, analysts added, it remained unclear whether the generals were prepared to abandon U.S. interests or were merely seizing the moment to adjust the old "master-slave" dynamic, as Egyptian politicians call it.
On Sunday, Egyptian prosecutors filed charges against at least 40 international civil society workers of receiving foreign funds illegally and participating in banned activities. Besides the Americans, the defendants reportedly include 16 Egyptians and others of several nationalities.
Egyptian reports initially said that 19 Americans were charged but the State Department said Tuesday that it had accounted for 16. Adding to the confusion, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that fewer than half of the Americans currently resided in Egypt and that others hadn't lived there for several years.
It's "a little bit unclear how the Egyptians came up with this list," Nuland said.
At least three of the accused Americans have holed up at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, an extraordinary measure to keep them from arrest. Other defendants apparently have managed to leave the country despite a travel ban; the court listed "fugitive" by some of the defendants' names.
Among the American defendants is Sam LaHood, the Egypt program director for the International Republican Institute and the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. The International Republican Institute was among 17 nongovernmental agencies authorities targeted in a raid Dec. 29 against groups suspected of illegally receiving foreign funds.
Egyptian state media's limited coverage of the dispute is couched in calls for national sovereignty as well as blatant accusations — some activists call them incitement to violence — that the groups were funneling money to forces behind the unrest since Mubarak's ouster.
Members of the military council, typically speaking through state media, have issued ominous warnings of "hidden hands" or "foreign hands" sowing chaos under the guise of revolution. Nonprofit workers have complained for years of such smear campaigns, and they say the government barred them from the proper registration process, which could've prevented the current dispute.
(Allam reported from Cairo.)
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