Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) is leading a congressional delegation to Egypt this weekend and will meet with the head of the Egyptian military in an effort to resolve the crisis over the prosecution of American NGO workers in Cairo, he said Wednesday.
McCain said he will meet with Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), a man he has known for 25 years, but insisted he was "not Bill Richardson," the former New Mexico governor who has periodically served as an unofficial envoy, swooping in to foreign capitals to rescue Americans held by hostile governments.
McCain explained that he had no intention of demanding the NGO workers' immediate release or negotiating with the Egyptian government directly. Instead, he plans to express the seriousness of the issue to Egyptian military leaders and explain that the organizations are not sowing unrest, as they have been accused of doing, but rather helping Egypt develop civic institutions. He will also try to explain the congressional politics of the moment and the real possibility that Congress will cut off U.S. aid to Egypt over the crisis.
McCain said he realizes that the generals may not be in control of the situation and may not be able to solve the NGO crisis even if they wanted to. That opinion is shared by the State Department, including Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, as The Cable reported last week. That's why McCain is also seeking meetings with Egyptian parliamentarians, civic leaders, and representatives of liberal, secular, and even Islamic groups.
That analysis seemed to be reinforced last weekend when Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey traveled to Cairo and was unable to secure the release of the NGO workers despite meeting with Tantawi for over six hours. There's a realization in the U.S. government and in Congress that the Egyptian government can't make concessions during or immediately after a high-level U.S. visit because the optics of such a move would be politically damaging for them domestically, multiple Senate aides said.
McCain said the issue was probably being driven by Minister of International Cooperation Fayza Abul-Naga, a longtime Mubarak loyalist suspected to be driving the effort to prosecute the aid workers.
McCain is the chairman of the board of the International Republican Institute, one of the three U.S. NGOs affected by the prosecutions. The others are the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House. Several Egyptian NGOs are also being targeted by the Egyptian government.
IRI President Lorne Craner testified at the House Foreign Affairs Committee's hearing on the situation in Egypt Thursday morning.
"Taken in total, the events we are seeing reflect not only an attack on American democracy implementers like IRI, but more importantly, are the tip of the iceberg in an ongoing effort to silence independent Egyptian civil society voices that have been under increasing assault since last fall. The rhetoric employed by Egyptian authorities in doing so is increasingly reminiscent of Mubarak-era propaganda," said Craner.
"The announcement of evidence against those implicated in the investigation by the judges and public statements made by Egyptian decision-makers, including the minister of justice and Minister of International Cooperation Abul-Naga, appear to be a direct violation of Egyptian law."
Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) said at the hearing that the SCAF and the ministry run by Abul-Naga should be pressured on the issue.
"While the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces bears ultimate responsibility for this strain in relations, the minister of international cooperation should not be exempt from punitive actions," she said. "This is not about 'sovereignty,' but about patronage and corruption. Therefore, no further U.S. assistance should be provided to any ministry that is controlled by the minister of international cooperation."
Ranking Democrat Howard Berman (D-CA) urged Secretary of State Hillary Clinton not to certify that Egypt can receive its $1.3 billion in military aid unless the NGO situation is resolved.
"Current law requires that, as a condition for the disbursal of military assistance to Egypt, the secretary of state must certify that Egypt is implementing policies that protect freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of association, and rule of law. And, although the law allows for a waiver, I cannot imagine the secretary could either make that certification or waive the requirement, as long as this NGO case moves forward -- and I would not encourage her to do so," Berman said.
The first confrontation over the aid could come this week when a transportation-related bill comes to the Senate floor. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is trying to add an amendment that would immediately cut off aid to Egypt, ahead of the State Department's certification.
At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday, McCain said that the Paul amendment was not helpful at this time and that he would fight to oppose it.
"I want to assure you that we are discussing that and ways to certainly avoid that action at this time," McCain said. He urged the administration to "explain to the rulers who are the military and leftovers from the Mubarak regime that this situation is really not acceptable to the American people."
His delegation, which will include Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and several other senators, will also visit other countries in the region.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.