CAIRO -- Two senior Republican senators visiting Egypt on Tuesday urged the military-backed government to release jailed Muslim Brotherhood leaders and defuse political tensions between Islamists and the nation’s largely secular security forces.
Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) joined a number of international envoys seeking to end more than a month of deadly violence between backers of the interim government and Islamist supporters of former President Mohamed Morsi, who was overthrown in a coup last month.
The senators, dispatched on a mediation mission by President Obama, met with interim Prime Minister Hazem Beblawi and Gen. Abdel Fattah Sisi, commander of the armed forces. But Cairo’s sensitivity over outside intervention prompted Egypt’s acting president to criticize “foreign pressure” at a time of deepening nationalist fervor.
The strained relations between Cairo and Washington are likely to be exacerbated by McCain's characterization of Morsi’s ouster as a military takeover, not a people’s revolt, as many Egyptians refer to it. The White House, not wanting to be legally forced to withdraw $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid to the Egyptian military, has carefully avoided using the word "coup" in its statements on Egypt.
"We have said we share the democratic aspirations and criticism of the Morsi government that led millions of Egyptians into the streets.... We've also said that the circumstances of [Morsi's] removal were a coup," McCain told reporters.
McCain and Graham called on the Egyptian government to release members of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood movement, many of whom have been jailed on what are widely seen as politically motivated charges, including murder. The Brotherhood, which has organized a sit-in of thousands of Islamists at the Rabaa al Adawiya mosque, has vowed not to end its protests until Morsi is reinstated.
“In democracy, you sit down and talk to each other,” Graham said. He added that it “is impossible to talk to somebody who is in jail.”
He also warned that U.S.-Egypt relations could be damaged: “Some in Congress want to sever the relationship. Some want to suspend the aid,” he said. “We have to be honest to where the relationship stands.... We can’t support Egypt that is not moving to democracy.”
But McCain said cutting U.S. aid to the Egyptian military would “would be the wrong signal at the wrong time."
More than 200 people, mostly Morsi supporters, have been killed in recent clashes with security forces. Diplomats from the U.S., Qatar, Europe and the United Arab Emirates have been pressing both sides to find a political solution. But the Brotherhood has said that Morsi, who is in army custody, was fairly elected last year and is the nation’s legitimate ruler.
Graham touched on Egypt’s confounding political landscape by saying: "The people who are in charge were not elected. The people who were elected are in jail. The status quo is not acceptable."
His comments also illustrated Washington’s erratic policy toward Egypt since longtime U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak was ousted as president in an uprising in 2011. Congressional conservatives had feared that the election of Morsi and the rise of the Brotherhood would tilt Egypt firmly toward political Islam. With that threat now alleviated, McCain and Graham have criticized the army for intervening and installing a secular government.
The senators’ arrival and other envoys shuttling around town have chafed the Egyptian government. Ahmed Muslimani, a spokesman for interim President Adly Mahmoud Mansour, said that "foreign pressure has exceeded international standards."
Egypt’s official news agency said Graham and McCain held talks with Sisi to explore ways of ending “the state of political polarization and stop the violence” to ensure that in coming months Egypt’s constitution is amended and parliamentary elections are held.
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