REPORTING FROM WASHINGTON -- The top U.S. military officer told a Senate committee Tuesday that Egyptian leaders may have underestimated how much harm their prosecution of American democracy-building workers could cause to long-standing ties with Washington.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that during his visit to Cairo last week, he had persuaded Egyptian officials of the dangers and “there was no doubt that they understood the seriousness” of the dispute.
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Dempsey stopped short of promising that Egyptian authorities would drop the criminal charges and allow the workers to either leave Egypt or resume their work with Egyptian civil rights and other nongovernmental groups without harassment.
State Department officials told reporters they had received a 24-page charging document that lays out felony and misdemeanor charges against 43 Egyptian and foreign workers. The workers, including 16 Americans, are accused of working for political groups not registered with the government and of receiving illegal foreign funding.
Despite demands from a succession of top U.S. officials, including President Obama, Egyptian authorities have refused to drop the charges. Several of the Americans, including Sam LaHood, son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, have taken refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo after being barred from flying out of the country.
Dempsey urged members of Congress not to cut the $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid to Egypt, chiefly to its military, as some lawmakers are seeking to do. He said the cutoff would damage a key alliance with a strategic partner in the Middle East.
However, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said that although the U.S. relationship with Egypt is vital, “the welfare of our citizens is even more vital.”
-- Paul Richter
Photo: Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testifies on Capitol Hill on Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Credit: J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press