CAIRO — The United States' top general discussed an Egyptian crackdown on Western-funded pro-democracy groups with the head of the country's ruling military council on Saturday, as another two foreigners were arrested on charges of fomenting discontent on the first anniversary of Hosni Mubarak's ouster.
The meeting between Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey and Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi took place as relations between the two allies have reached their lowest level in decades.
Egypt, which regularly blames anti-military protests on foreign meddling, has referred 16 American civil society employees to trial on charges of using State Department funds to finance unrest in Egypt. Among those referred to trial is Sam LaHood, the head of the Egypt office of the Washington-based International Republican Institute and the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
And in an indication that authorities will continue to push the line that foreigners are stirring up trouble, Egyptian police said they had arrested an Australian journalist and an American student whom they say residents accused of trying to bribe people to join a strike aimed at pressuring military rulers to transfer power to civilian rule.
The new arrests follow warnings from both the White House and Congress that the United States could cut an annual $1.5 billion aid package to Egypt over the crackdown on the civil society groups.
Dempsey discussed a range of issues with Egyptian generals "including the issue involving U.S. NGOs", according to his spokesman Col. Dave Lapan who declined to give more details about the private discussions.
Egypt's state news agency said Dempsey and the ruling generals discussed "the depth of the strategic relationship between Washington and Cairo," but a Pentagon official had said prior to the general's visit that he would talk with Egypt's leaders about "choices and consequences."
Egypt's generals have responded defiantly to both the Americans and to their domestic opposition, issuing a statement Friday evening saying the country was facing great threats.
"We face conspiracies hatched against the homeland, whose goal is to undermine the institutions of the Egyptian state and whose aim is to topple the state itself so that chaos reigns and destruction spreads," it said.
Activists say the conspiracy warnings seek to undermine their campaign aimed at pushing the generals to relinquish power.
Saturday's arrests will likely be used to reinforce the generals' narrative that the strike and other protests against their handling of the post-Mubarak transition are the work of "foreign hands."
A security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to release the information, identified the two arrested as a U.S. student enrolled at the American University in Cairo and an Australian journalist.
He said that their Egyptian guide was also detained in Mahalla al-Kobra – a northern industrial city that has seen violent worker strikes in the past – after residents told police the three were handing out money to people in order to encourage them to participate in the strike.
The security official said the three would be interrogated by the state prosecutor. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
The official did not identify the three, but a woman identified as Aliya Alwi wrote on her Twitter account that she and the two others, freelance journalist Austin Mackell and student Derek Ludovici, had been detained and told they would be transferred to a military intelligence office in the Nile Delta city of Tanta. Their identities could not immediately be confirmed.
Rehab Saad, a spokeswoman for AUC, said they could not confirm if she was a student at AUC because the university was closed.
It was difficult to fully gauge the success of the calls for a general strike in Egypt. Activists say that they intend it to be a rolling strike that will grow over time, and the first day – Saturday – is a weekend day in Egypt.
A statement signed by 40 groups said that the strike aimed to push Tantawi and the other members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces who took over from Mubarak on Feb. 11, 2011, to give up power.
Egyptian activists accuse the generals of using repressive tactics similar to those of the Mubarak regime to silence dissent.
"We are on the verge of another struggle, to overthrow another tyrant," said Ahmed Hewary, a member of the Revolution Continues coalition.
Student councils and professors at 11 universities, among them Cairo University and the American University in Cairo, announced that they would cancel classes for three days to take part in the strike.
Hundreds of students protested inside several universities across the country, carrying photos of some of the nearly 100 protesters killed in clashes with security forces since Mubarak's resignation.
But outside the universities and a handful of factories, there were few reports of adherence to the strike.
Cairo airport Helmy al-Saber said he worked overtime for an hour to show his rejection of the strike.
"The economy is reeling and it is not possible for a worker who loves his country to adhere to this civil disobedience, because it will only make the economy worse," he said.
The generals still have support from a wide spectrum of Egyptians who see them as the only viable leaders able to run the country until presidential elections scheduled for June.
Tanks parked around Cairo were covered with stickers showing a soldier carrying a baby, and another reading, "The army and the people are one hand."
That was the slogan raised by demonstrators a year ago, many of whom put their faith in an army that they believed would step in to end the crisis, remove Mubarak, and restore stability.
Human Rights Watch meanwhile released a statement Saturday saying that free expression in Egypt has worsened since Mubarak's ouster.
The New York-based rights group cited military trials of protesters and bloggers and the use of deadly force to break up demonstrations.
It also noted the interrogations of activists for criticizing the military, the suspension of new satellite television licenses, and the closure of an outlet of Al Jazeera television.
Sarah El Deeb contributed reporting.