US senators urge release of Morsi backers

But Egyptian leaders reject ‘interference’

Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham termed the events of July 3 a “coup,’’ a word the White House avoided.
Asmaa Waguih/Reuters
Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham termed the events of July 3 a “coup,’’ a word the White House avoided.

CAIRO — Two US senators came to Egypt Tuesday with a message for the country’s new military-backed leaders: Release Islamist figures as a gesture to the Muslim Brotherhood or risk making ‘‘a huge mistake.’’

The message from Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham met with a sharp response, denounced by interim President Adly Mansour in a brief statement as ‘‘unacceptable interference in internal politics.’’

The new leadership, emboldened by mass demonstrations of support, showed no sign of willingness to release Muslim Brotherhood figures whom McCain called ‘‘political prisoners’’ and whom the government plans to prosecute for allegedly inciting violence.


As the senators made their rounds, authorities said that two Morsi aides would be jailed and face charges of inciting violence in December when Muslim Brotherhood members attacked a sit-in by protesters outside Morsi’s office that sparked clashes, killing 10 people.

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At stake is stability in the Arab world’s most populous country. The new leadership is facing international calls to ease its crackdown on Morsi’s group while also dealing with calls by millions of Egyptians to clear Brotherhood-led sit-ins in two major intersections of the capital. Some 250 people have been killed since Morsi’s ouster.

The Brotherhood is demanding Morsi’s reinstatement as Egypt’s first freely elected president while the new government vows to push ahead with fresh elections next year.

The McCain-Graham visit was carried out at President Obama’s request, but their message differed from his. For one thing, they called what happened on July 3 a coup, a word the administration avoided because it would trigger a suspension of the $1.3 billion a year in US military aid to Egypt.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said ‘‘Our position has not changed’’ regarding the word ‘‘coup.’’ “Senator McCain and Senator Graham are certainly entitled to their opinions, just as any member of Congress is.’’


At a news conference in Cairo after meeting government officials, military leaders, and members of the Brotherhood’s political wing, the senators stressed the need to free prisoners.

‘‘It is impossible to talk with somebody who’s in jail. That is not a sustainable model that will allow transition to occur,’’ said Graham.

He also said his message to the government is: ‘‘If you think you can negotiate with people who are in jail and that’s the way you’re going to negotiate, you’re making a huge mistake.’’

Echoing that sentiment, McCain said the Brotherhood must be included in Egypt’s transition.

‘‘Our purpose is to try to urge our friends toward a process that can avert a very serious situation that can affect not only the Arab world, but also the United States.’’


Graham suggested that US military aid could be at risk.

‘‘We cannot support Egypt that is not moving toward democracy. Our aid is going to be tied to what’s best, from our point of view, for the world, Egypt and the region,’’ he said.

McCain, however, said cutting off aid ‘‘would have been the wrong thing to do and the wrong time.’’

The two senators also said they made clear that they want the Brotherhood to renounce violence before negotiations start.

McCain and Graham have been preceded by senior officials of the Obama administration, the European Union, oil-rich Arab Gulf states, and the African Union, all anxious to stem the crisis.

But Egyptian officials were sounding increasingly annoyed at what they saw as foreign meddling.