Egyptian officials to visit US amid tensions

Military council’s crackdown on NGOs, notably a travel ban on six American staffers, imperils US aid to the country.

Sam LaHood, left, a son of the US transportation secretary, is among the six pro-democracy activists facing travel bans

An Egyptian military team intends to visit the US next week, according to US officials, against a backdrop of tensions over a crackdown on pro-democracy organisations that have jeopardised US financial assistance to Egypt.

The Egyptian delegation hopes to meet officials at the state department and the Pentagon. It will also hold talks on Capitol Hill, where politicians will soon consider a new request for aid to Egypt’s military, which now runs about $1.3bn per year, one official said on Friday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Egyptian visit comes after Egypt’s military-led authorities moved against non-governmental organisations (NGOs), including several funded by the US government, and placed travel bans on six American pro-democracy activists, including a son of Ray LaHood, a former congressman who is the current US transportation secretary.

Political analysts say the crackdown, along with questions over Egypt’s emergency law and security forces’ treatment of women protesters, has clouded the outlook for Egypt’s democracy following last year’s overthrow of Hosni Mubarak.

Victoria Nuland, the state department spokeswoman, said US officials were pressing Egyptian authorities to end the crackdown, which she described as “bizarre”.

“The Americans have demanded that Egypt lift travel restrictions placed on a number of foreign NGO staffers,” she said.

“We do not have progress since yesterday, I am sorry to report.”

The six US citizens at the receiving end of the Egyptian travel bans work with the National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute. Both receive US public funding and are loosely affiliated with the two major political parties in Washington.

“The assertions of the Egyptian government in these cases are that they are subject to a judicial process which is not complete,” Nuland said. “Our message back is, ‘Complete these formalities and let our people travel as soon as possible.'”

US aid at stake

Officials said a detailed Washington schedule for the Egyptian visit was still being worked out, adding that it was a regular staff delegation.

Other political sources said the Egyptians were expected to discuss the NGO issue on Capitol Hill, where a number of senators have warned the Egyptians that US aid was at stake if action against the NGOs continues.

“Continued restriction of their activities and harassment of international and Egyptian staff will be looked at with great concern, particularly in light of Egypt’s considerable US assistance,” eleven senators said in a letter to Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the head of Egypt’s governing Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), on January 18.

President Barack Obama spoke with Tantawi on January 20 and stressed the importance of the NGOs, as well as Egypt’s deteriorating economic situation and its request for $3.2bn in support from the International Monetary Fund.

The Obama administration is finalising its budget for the 2013 fiscal year, which will be presented on February 13 and is expected to include continued assistance for Egypt’s military.

Politicians imposed conditions on the US assistance given in 2012, requiring Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, to certify that the Egyptian government is supporting the transition to a civilian government.

That includes holding free and fair elections and implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association, and religion, and due process of law.

Clinton can waive this if it is in US national security interests, but must notify congress that she has done so.

Scuffles in Tahrir Square

On the ground, meanwhile, political differences between Islamist and secular protesters boiled over at a rally by thousands of Egyptians marking the first anniversary in the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak.

Muslim Brotherhood supporters and secular activists hurled bottles and rocks at each other and got into fistfights on Friday in Tahrir Square.

The scuffles, in which there were no reports of injury, were the first time the two sides have come to blows over resentments that have been rising between them since they worked together during the 18 days of protests against Mubarak a year ago.

The differences do not focus on the Brotherhood’s religious agenda, though it worries many in the other camp. Instead, the divisions are over the military, and ultimately whether change will be brought to Egypt’s political system.

The the leftist and secular activists who launched the anti-Mubarak revolt, now demand that the SCAF quit power immediately and have threatened protests to force the generals out.

The Brotherhood, meanwhile, has been willing to let the military follow its own timetable for stepping down.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies