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Egypt says it has ended US lobbyists' contract

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MAGGIE MICHAEL | January 29, 2012 12:57 PM EST | AP

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CAIRO — Egypt's Foreign Ministry said Sunday it has ended a contract with three Washington lobbying firms to cut expenses, denying reports that the Americans were the ones to sever the contract.

The rupture occurred as Cairo faces criticism from Washington for banning at least 10 Americans and Europeans from leaving the country as part of an investigation into foreign-funded civil society organizations. Among those barred was Sam LaHood of the U.S.-based International Republican Institute, who is the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

The ban sparked anger in the United States, and Washington warned on Tuesday that the campaign raised concerns about Egypt's transition to democracy and could jeopardize American aid that Egypt's battered economy needs badly after a year of political and social unrest.

The travel ban was part of an Egyptian criminal investigation into foreign-funded democracy organizations after soldiers raided the offices of 10 such groups last month, including the IRI and its sister organization, the National Democratic Institute, as well as several Egyptian organizations.

Both the IRI and the NDI, linked to the Republican and Democratic parties, monitored Egypt's recent parliamentary elections.

The Egyptian investigation is closely linked with the political turmoil that has engulfed the country since the fall of Hosni Mubarak nearly a year ago. The generals who took power after Mubarak's fall have accused "foreign hands" of being behind protests against their rule, and they frequently depict the protesters themselves as receiving foreign funds in a plot to destabilize the country.

The December raids have drew sharp U.S. criticism, and President Barack Obama has spoken by telephone with Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the head of the ruling military council, to emphasize "the role that these organizations can play in civil society," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Thursday.

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry's statement was issued two days after Politico reported that former Republican Rep. Bob Livingston, former Democratic Rep. Toby Moffett and longtime lobbyist Tony Podesta ended their contract with the Egyptian government.

The lobbyists confirmed in a statement Saturday that they were immediately terminating their four-year relationship with the Egyptian government.

"We hope that Egyptians continue to enjoy the deepening of democracy in their country, and that Egypt remains a strong, stable and vital ally of the United States," the three lobbyists said in a joint statement.

Politico reported earlier that the firms came under criticism after circulating talking points justifying Egyptian security forces' raids on a number of NGOs including American groups.

Meanwhile, a delegation from Egypt's Defense Ministry has arrived in New York, Egypt's state news agency reported.

MENA quoted military attache Gen. Mohammed el-Kishki as saying that the visit was aimed at discussing "cooperation between the two countries in military affairs."

Egypt's army, which took power after the February 2011 ouster of Hosni Mubarak, receives 1.3 billion dollars a year in U.S. foreign assistance.

The country's aid package has come under pressure by members of Congress who want assurances that Egypt will abide by a 1979 peace treaty with Israel, and that the military rulers will respect democratic freedoms.