WASHINGTON – Fresh off a contentious meeting in Cairo, Sen. John McCain expressed concern Thursday that Egypt may be headed toward a period of prolonged violence if the Arab country's military and the Muslim Brotherhood cannot start a political dialogue.
McCain and fellow Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham pressed their case over meetings this week with Egypt's top army brass, interim political leaders, youth groups and allies of Egypt's ousted and now imprisoned president, Mohammed Morsi. And the 2008 presidential runner-up acknowledged that top Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi was unhappy with some of the "straightforward" suggestions they offered.
"We urged them to say they'd release some of the political prisoners if the Muslim Brotherhood pledged to renounce violence," McCain told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "They were not ready to agree to that, and I'm not sure that the Muslim Brotherhood was ready, either."
"We were very straightforward with him," McCain said of el-Sissi. "He was not very happy to hear it."
But the Arizona senator said he delivered a message that needed to be heard.
"The question is whether he recognizes there has to be a national dialogue and reconciliation, or you could see a period of prolonged violence," McCain said of the 59-year-old, U.S. and British-educated commander-in-chief of the Egyptian army. "Where we don't agree is that we believe that there needs to be goodwill gestures on both sides."
The McCain-Graham visit was undertaken at President Barack Obama's request, though the lawmakers didn't speak for the administration. McCain, for example, called Morsi's ouster a "coup" — a declaration Obama's team has avoided because it would trigger a suspension of America's annual military aid package of $1.3 billion. The U.S. says such support is critical to American interests in the region from fighting terrorism to ensuring Israel's security.
Egypt's interim president was among those who rejected the senators' message as interference in Egypt's internal affairs. A senior Egyptian official confirmed that the government remained upset about the visit and viewed McCain as hardening the Brotherhood's resolve.
McCain stressed the pressing nature of Egypt's crisis over the need for diplomatic niceties. He particularly noted the military's threat to break up major sit-ins by Morsi supporters. And at one point, he referred to Egypt's government as a "junta."
Having joined with other senators to reject overwhelmingly a proposal last week to halt U.S. assistance to Egypt, McCain said he told Egypt's leaders weren't guaranteed the money forever. He urged them to restore democratic institutions, hold free elections and write a new constitution as they've promised.
"If that doesn't happen, you have to explore all options," McCain said. "The one thing we didn't do was threaten. We didn't dictate to them. We just tried to tell them what we believed needs to happen."