Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta is greeted by Egyptian Maj. Gen. Rouini… (Win McNamee / Pool Photo )
Reporting from Cairo — The Obama administration is urging Egypt's military government to repeal a sweeping law giving it the right to detain people without charge, arguing that failure to lift the statute would taint upcoming parliamentary elections.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta raised American concern about the emergency law in talks Tuesday in Cairo with Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, chief of the ruling military council, and other Egyptian officials.
"The response I got back is that they are seriously looking at the first opportunity" to lift the emergency law, Panetta said. "My hope is that they will proceed."
Panetta also urged Egyptian officials to release Ilan Grapel, an American-born law student arrested in June and accused of being an Israeli spy, an accusation Israel denies. Supporters of Grapel, who holds U.S.-Israeli citizenship, said he was working for a legal aid group when he was arrested in Cairo's Tahrir Square.
But despite the U.S. appeal, Grapel remained in Egyptian custody Tuesday.
"We have expressed our concerns about his treatment and have urged that ultimately he be released," Panetta said. "We're confident that ultimately the Egyptian government will deal with that fairly."
Panetta, who is on his second overseas trip since taking office in July, arrived in Cairo after visiting Israel on Monday. He flew to Brussels late Tuesday for a meeting of defense chiefs at North Atlantic Treaty Organization headquarters that is expected to focus on the conflicts in Libya and Afghanistan.
Revoking the emergency law has been one of the main demands of Egyptian protesters who forced President Hosni Mubarak from power in February. Obama administration officials have also pressed for the law to be lifted.
But the generals who now rule Egypt have promised only to review the emergency-powers statute, which was used for years to imprison political activists. In private talks with U.S. officials, they argue that the statute provides important powers that could help quell unrest at a time of continuing protests in Egypt.
The transitional governing council's refusal to lift the law is seen by some pro-democracy activists as evidence that the military remains ambivalent about transferring political power to a civilian government.
In talks with U.S. officials, Egyptian officials have pointed to an assault by protesters on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo as an example of why it needs special powers to deal with continuing unrest. But a senior U.S. defense official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, said that failure to revoke the detention law would "cast a shadow over" the elections for Egypt's lower house, which are scheduled to begin in November.
Tantawi and others indicated to Panetta that they intended to proceed with repeal but apparently gave no timetable for doing so.
"We're particularly hopeful they would do so before the parliamentary elections," the official said, noting that "they didn't say they wouldn't."
In addition to elections for the lower house, Egyptian officials recently agreed to a timetable for a transition to civilian rule that calls for upper house balloting in January, followed by the drafting of a new constitution and the presidential election in 2013.