By Jill Dougherty and Chris Lawrence
Members of Congress have told top Obama administration officials, as well as the head of Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, that Egypt's investigation of and raids on U.S. democracy support groups working in that country could mean the end of U.S. aid to Egypt.
In a Feb. 2 letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, 41 members of Congress urged the administration to withhold further aid to Egypt until the country's leadership lets the offices of those organizations reopen and returns seized property.
The United States sends more than $1.3 billion each year in military aid to Egypt, according to the U.S. State Department. And, since 1975, the U.S. Agency for International Development has provided more than $28 billion in economic and development assistance to Egypt.
Egypt's military leadership has launched an investigation into the U.S.-based International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House, seizing the groups' property and preventing some of their staff members from leaving the country.
"The absence of a quick and satisfactory resolution to this issue will make it increasingly difficult for congressional supporters of a strong U.S.-Egypt bilateral relationship to defend current levels of assistance to Egypt, especially in this climate of budget cuts in Washington," the letter warns.
The lawmakers note that FY 2012 Consolidated Appropriations Act requires that, to receive U.S. aid, the Egyptian government must "support the transition to civilian government, including holding free and fair elections; implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association and religion; and due process of law."
"The U.S. should withhold certification until these fundamental human rights are protected, which regrettably seems impossible under the present circumstances," the letter states.
State Department officials met Thursday and Friday in Washington with a delegation of senior members of the Egyptian military on a previously scheduled visit and discussed the issue of the American democracy-support groups.
At the State Department briefing Friday, Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner declined to call the discussion a "warning," but added: "It's consistent with what we've been saying, which is that we are seeking every avenue... from the president on down to our regular consultations, to press the points that we want to see the travel restrictions lifted and we want to see the NGO (nongovernmental organizations) issue more broadly addressed."
The incident has strained what has long been a strong relationship between the U.S. and Egyptian militaries. A U.S. defense official told CNN there has been some frustration among U.S. officials that the military-to-military relationship has not been able to affect these issues more.
The U.S. and Egyptian military relationship has been strong not only because of the billions of dollars in aid but because many Egyptian officers have trained in the United States.
"We've let the Egyptians know where we stand," the official said.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told reporters on Tuesday that he had recently spoken by telephone with Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi and "conveyed to him the concerns that we have with regards to the treatment of these individuals and the whole NGO issue."
Panetta continued, "He indicated his concern, that he'll do everything he can to try to help on this issue. He obviously has to deal now with the parliament. He has to deal with what is an independent judiciary ... I said, welcome to democracy, because I have the same responsibility to deal with the Congress, and they're concerned about this issue."
He expressed hope that the situation could be resolved soon.
An official said the United States needs to continue giving military aid to the Egyptians because, no matter what kind of government emerges from the election, Egypt's military will still be a pillar of the country and the entire region. The United States needs to maintain its relationship with that military, the official said.