CAIRO — The leader of Egypt's largest Islamist party has rejected U.S. threats to cut aid over a spat about nonprofit groups operating in the country, saying they are out of line and could imperil the peace deal with Israel.
The comments by Mohammed Morsi, the leader of the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, were carried by the state news agency Thursday and were posted on the party Facebook page.
Egypt claims the four U.S. groups are fomenting protests against the country's military rulers and sowing discord. Judges have referred 16 Americans, including six currently in Egypt and barred from traveling, and 27 others to criminal court. No date for the trial has been set yet.
The dispute has shaken relations between Washington and Cairo, and U.S. officials and legislators have threatened to cut aid to Egypt — $1.3 billion in military assistance and $250 million in economic assistance — if the issue is not resolved.
Morsi said the annual U.S. aid is part of its commitment to Egypt's 1979 treaty with Israel — a bedrock of U.S. interests in the Middle East — and should not be at risk because of the dispute over the nonprofit groups.
"The U.S. is a principle part of this agreement and its guarantor. There is no room for talking about aid except in the framework of discussing the peace deal," Morsi said. "Brandishing threats to stop this aid is out of place. Otherwise, the peace deal would be reconsidered or it could flounder."
Morsi's comments are in line with previous statements from Egyptian officials who have said the peace deal with Israel is not scared and can be amended. But Morsi's remarks are the first since the spat with Washington erupted in December.
After years of being targeted by a security crackdown under Hosni Mubarak, the Brotherhood was emerged as the dominant political force since Mubarak was ousted in a popular uprising a year ago. The group's political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party. which Morsi heads, is the pre-eminent force in Egypt's parliament, with nearly half of the seats.
A senior Cabinet minister, Faiza Aboul Naga, had accused the U.S. groups of using the foreign funds to foment pro-democracy protests against the country's military rulers, who took over after Hosni Mubarak was ousted in a popular uprising a year ago.
The U.S. nonprofit organizations under investigation — including the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute — blame Aboul Naga, an old Mubarak stalwart, of pushing the campaign.
On Wednesday, the Muslim Brotherhood said it supports the government's position regarding the aid groups and rejects U.S. pressure to drop the case.
The foreign funding affair has also been interpreted by many among Egypt's pro-democracy groups as part of a larger plan to neutralize rights groups and other civil society organizations who challenged Mubarak and continue to challenge what they say are grave rights violations by the military rulers.
Investigative judges have said a second phase of the probe is looking into Egyptian groups receiving foreign funds.
The Brotherhood, which previously has backed the military's crackdown on pro-democracy and rights organizations, is itself an unregistered group that does not disclose information about its finances, saying only that it finances its activities through member subscriptions and donations from businessmen.
The Brotherhood doesn't openly oppose the peace deal with Israel, but has said it would consider amending it to allow more Egyptian troops along the border with Israel. They also have said they would put the agreement to a public referendum.
In his comments, Morsi voiced similar sentiments.
"We want the peace to continue in a way that would preserve the interests of the Egyptian people," he said.
The Brotherhood's deputy chairman, Khairat el-Shater, told Al-Jazeera television that U.S. aid should not be conditional and should continue to flow as a "compensation" for years of supporting Mubarak's autocratic regime.