CAIRO — Egyptian police have arrested and detained a local employee of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, an embassy spokesman confirmed Wednesday, in a move that could complicate already tense relations between the two allies.
Embassy staffer Ahmed Aleiba was arrested in Cairo on the third anniversary of Egypt’s uprising on Jan. 25 and is in custody awaiting potential criminal charges, the embassy and Egyptian government officials said.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Mofid Deak said the embassy is in touch with the Egyptian government, “and we are trying to learn more about the circumstances of his arrest.”
Local media reports and government officials said Aleiba is under investigation for participating in anti-government demonstrations and for “communication” with leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, which backs former president Mohamed Morsi, who was ousted in a July coup. The government recently declared the Brotherhood a “terrorist organization.”
Since Morsi’s ouster, authorities have led a fierce crackdown on the Islamist group and on students, activists and journalists perceived as having Brotherhood sympathies. Security forces apprehended Aleiba during anti-government protests on Jan. 25, when 49 demonstrators were killed in clashes with police, according to the Health Ministry.
Reports of his detention first surfaced Tuesday on the Web site of the Egyptian newspaper al-Youm al-Sabea, which quoted a security official as saying the embassy staffer was transferred into the custody of Egypt’s domestic spy service after his interrogators discovered that he had served as a liaison between U.S. officials and the Muslim Brotherhood.
The embassy would not confirm the nature of Aleiba’s employment.
But the move raised further concerns about the status of journalists and diplomats based in Cairo whose work involves speaking with members of the opposition.
The arrest of a U.S. Embassy staffer is likely to complicate already tense relations between the United States and Egypt, which worsened after Morsi’s ouster. Many Egyptians, fueled by pro-government media, have accused the U.S. government of financially supporting and conspiring with the Brotherhood to keep the Islamists in power.
A State Department spokeswoman in Washington confirmed Wednesday that embassy officials in Cairo have been in regular contact with Brotherhood leaders. “We will continue talking to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as part of our broad outreach to the different parties and groups there,” Marie Harf said during the daily briefing.
Also Wednesday, Egyptian Defense Minister Abdel Fatah al-Sissi embarked on an official visit to Moscow, his first since ousting Morsi last summer. Sissi is expected to nurture security ties with Russia, which is eager to expand its influence in the Middle East.
The Egyptian government’s killing of hundreds of pro-Morsi demonstrators on the streets of Cairo in August prompted the Obama administration to withhold a third of its $1.3 billion in annual military assistance to Egypt, including the delivery of F-16 fighter jets, M1A1 Abrams tank kits and Harpoon missiles.
Sissi, who is widely expected to run for the presidency this spring, was in Russia to discuss renewed military ties with the government of President Vladimir Putin, Egypt’s government said.
Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Badr Adel Atty played down reports in Egypt’s state-run media of a weapons deal that would provide Egypt with about $2 billion in arms from Russia.
“American aid [to Egypt] has been constant for decades,” said Safwat el-Zayat, a former brigadier general in Egypt’s army. “Sissi wants to appear like he is independent from the United States, but this visit will not dramatically change that relationship.”
Sharaf al-Hourani contributed to this report.