WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The top U.S. military officer forcefully argued against a cut-off in aid to Egypt on Thursday but acknowledged there needed to be "consequences" after a crackdown on U.S. pro-democracy activists that has strained ties between Cairo and Washington.
Washington has said $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid is at risk due to an Egyptian probe into civil society groups that has resulted in charges against 43 activists, including 19 Americans who have been barred from leaving the country. Some have taken refuge at the U.S. embassy.
But General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress that a cut-off in aid could backfire by distancing future generations of Egyptian military officers from the United States.
He also noted privileges, including overflight rights, that U.S. aid helps ensure.
"When we use funding to separate ourselves from prior partners, nothing good comes of it," Dempsey told the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee, which helps hold the nation's purse-strings.
"There have to be some consequences for the choices they've made, I fully agree with that," said Dempsey, without specifying what those consequences might be.
"But you know, we do have a very close partnership with them ... they grant us great overflight rights, they grant us priority passage through the Suez Canal. I mean, we get things for our aid that truly we need."
In Cairo, the Muslim Brotherhood, which has emerged as the major political force since Hosni Mubarak was ousted from power a year ago, warned that Egypt may review its 1979 peace deal with Israel if U.S. aid is cut, a move that could undermine a cornerstone of Washington's Middle East policy.
Under the conditions written into the fiscal 2012 spending bill that Congress passed in December, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton must certify that Egypt's military-led authorities are meeting benchmarks toward democratic reform.
Clinton has not yet made that certification for the fiscal year, which began last October and ends on September 1.
Some lawmakers have pointed to those conditions as they voice alarm over the investigation of American pro-democracy activists, who face the prospect of imprisonment, according to separate testimony by the leaders of U.S. democracy-building organizations whose staff have been charged in Egypt.
The charges include allegations that the activists were working for organizations not legally registered in Egypt. The groups say they have long sought to register there.
They are also alleged to have broken the law by accepting foreign funds - grant money from the U.S. government - without Egyptian government approval.
Dempsey, who traveled to Egypt earlier this month, said despite everything military ties with Egypt remained strong.
The U.S. military has credited its strong ties with Egypt's military as one of the factors helping advance a democratic transition there after Mubarak's ousting.
"Cutting off aid, and therefore cutting off from them, means that the next generation won't have that benefit (of close ties with the U.S. military). And I don't know where that takes us, to tell you the truth," Dempsey said.