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U.S. Embassy staffer arrested in Cairo

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 allegedly participating in anti-government demonstrations and for “communication” with leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood group that backed the ousted president Mohammed Morsi. The government recently declared the Brotherhood a “terrorist organization.”

Since Morsi’s ouster in July, 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 Jan. 25, when 49 demonstrators were killed in clashes with police, according to the health ministry.

Reports of his detention first surfaced today on the website of 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 and whose work involves speaking with members of the opposition.

The arrest of a U.S. Embassy staffer will likely complicate already tense relations between the U.S. and Egypt, which worsened following 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.

Also Wednesday, Egyptian defense minister Abdel Fattah el-Sissi embarked on an official visit to Moscow, his first since ousting Morsi last summer. He is expected to nurture security ties with Russia, which is eager for a foothold in the Middle East.

The deaths of hundreds of pro-Morsi demonstrators during clashes with government forces on the streets of Cairo in August prompted the Obama administration to later halt a third of the $1.3 billion in annual U.S. 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, is in Russia on Wednesday to discuss renewed military ties with Putin’s government, Egypt’s government said.

Egyptian foreign ministry spokesman Badr Adel Atty downplayed reports in Egypt’s state-run media of a weapons deal that would provide Egypt with some $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.”

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