CAIRO (Reuters) - The top U.S. military officer met Egypt’s ruling generals in Cairo Saturday and discussed the case of U.S. pro-democracy activists charged in an investigation that has strained ties between Cairo and Washington.
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was the first senior U.S. official to visit Cairo since the charges were brought against 43 foreign and Egyptian activists following a probe into civil society groups.
Around 20 of those charged are Americans. They have been banned from leaving the country and include Sam LaHood, the country director of the International Republican Institute (IRI) who is the son of the U.S. transportation secretary. An undisclosed number have taken shelter at the U.S. embassy.
The case has put a deep strain on relations with Washington, which counted Egypt as a close strategic ally under ousted President Hosni Mubarak and supplies Cairo with an annual $1.3 billion in military aid. Both the U.S. Congress and the White House have said the investigation could threaten the aid.
The investigators have brought charges including that the activists were working for organizations not legally registered in Egypt. The Egyptian government says the issue is a case of law, not politics.
Dempsey met Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and chief of staff General Sami Anan during meetings at the defense ministry in Cairo.
“They discussed a wide range of issues related to the long-standing security relationship between our two countries, including the issue involving U.S. NGOs,” Colonel David Lapan, a spokesman for Dempsey, told Reuters in a statement.
“We will not, however, further describe the contents and nature of their private discussions,” he added.
In signs the dispute could worsen, however, Egyptian authorities detained an Australian journalist and an American student Saturday on suspicion they had distributed cash to workers and incited them to take part in a strike called by activists demanding an end to army rule.
State news agency MENA said the pair were detained along with their Egyptian translator in the industrial city of al-Mahalla al-Kubra north of Cairo.
They were referred to the prosecutor general for investigation, the agency said, identifying the American student as Derek Ludovici and the Australian journalist as Austin Mackell.
An Egyptian army official said that in the talks with the United States, the sides had “stressed the importance of the two countries’ commitment to international conventions and treaties and emphasized the depth of the strategic relations between the U.S. and Egypt.”
Dempsey had stressed America’s “keenness to follow up on the process of democratization in Egypt and the efforts of the armed forces to transfer power to civilian rule,” the official said.
The military council which assumed power from Mubarak on February 11, 2011 has pledged to hand over to an elected president at the end of June, completing a transfer to civilians.
The Egyptian official said a delegation from Congress will be visiting Cairo to continue discussions over aid. For U.S. aid to continue, the Obama administration must certify to Congress that Egypt is making progress toward democracy.
It was Dempsey’s first visit to Egypt as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a post he took in October.
In Congress, some lawmakers and their aides have said U.S. aid to Egypt had effectively stopped pending resolution of the crisis.
The U.S. delegation was also due to meet Egypt’s intelligence officials Saturday, the official added, saying that both Tantawi and Anan would meet with the head of U.S. Central Command, General James Mattis Monday.
Following the meeting of the generals, Egypt’s government issued a statement saying it was reviewing the 2002 law regulating the work of non-governmental organizations in Egypt.
Egypt’s Minister of International Cooperation Faiza Abul Naga said Saturday the review would aim to “resolve any legal gaps in the law.”
U.S. military aid to Egypt accounts for about 25 percent of Egypt’s defense spending per year. The defense budget was $4.56 billion in 2010 - the third-largest in the Middle East after Israel and Saudi Arabia - according to the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Additional reporting by David Alexander in Washington; Writing by Marwa Awad; Editing by Tom Perry and Myra MacDonald