Last week in Cairo, seven U.S. senators had a highly contentious meeting with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy during which the Muslim Brotherhood leader implied that he was the victim of an American media run by the Jews.
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) led a delegation last week to Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and Afghanistan that included Sens. Chris Coons (D-DE), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Kirsten Gilibrand (D-NY). Their stop in Cairo included a 90-minute meeting with Morsy that devolved into an uncomfortable set of exchanges as the senators pressed the Egyptian president to explain his 2010 comments describing Jews as "bloodsuckers who attack Palestinians" as well as "the descendants of apes and pigs."
After the meeting, McCain issued a statement saying that the senators "voiced our strong disapproval of the statement" and that the senators and Morsy "had a constructive discussion on this subject." Morsy's spokesman issued a statement after the meeting saying that Morsy believed in religious freedom and "the need to distinguish between the Jewish religion, and those who belong to it, and violent actions against defenseless Palestinians."
But inside the meeting, the discussion over Morsy's 2010 remarks was much more heated than either side publicly acknowledged afterwards, according to Coons. Addressing the comments was the first item on the senators' agenda, and the discussion did not go well, he told The Cable in an interview.
"We tried to give President Morsy an opportunity, now that he is the president, to put his comments in a different context because he was claiming that he was taken out of context. On their face they seemed to be very offensive and inappropriate," Coons said. "It was a difficult conversation."
Morsy told the senators that the values of Islam teach respect for Christianity and Judaism, and he asserted repeatedly that he had no negative views about Judaism or the Jewish people, but then followed with a diatribe about Israel and Zionist actions against Palestinians, especially in Gaza.
Then Morsy crossed a line and made a comment that made the senators physically recoil in their chairs in shock, Coons said.
"He was attempting to explain himself ... then he said, ‘Well, I think we all know that the media in the United States has made a big deal of this and we know the media of the United States is controlled by certain forces and they don't view me favorably,'" Coons said.
The Cable asked Coons if Morsy specifically named the Jews as the forces that control the American media. Coons said all the senators believed the implication was obvious.
"He did not say [the Jews], but I watched as the other senators physically recoiled, as did I," he said. "I thought it was impossible to draw any other conclusion."
"The meeting then took a very sharply negative turn for some time. It really threatened to cause the entire meeting to come apart so that we could not continue," Coons said.
Multiple senators impressed upon Morsy that if he was saying the criticisms of his comments were due to the Jews in the media, that statement was potentially even more offensive than his original comments from 2010.
"[Morsi] did not say the Jewish community was making a big deal of this, but he said something [to the effect] that the only conclusion you could read was that he was implying it," Coons said. "The conversation got so heated that eventually Senator McCain said to the group, ‘OK, we've pressed him as hard as we can while being in the boundaries of diplomacy,'" Coons said. "We then went on to discuss a whole range of other topics."
Coons stressed that the rest of the meeting was constructive and the Morsy meeting was only one compenent of a visit to Cairo that included meeting with Prime Minister Hesham Mohamed Qandil, Defense Minister Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi, and political opposition leaders including Amr Moussa and Mohamed ElBaradei.
Morsy and the senators also discussed the peace treaty with Israel, the plight of American NGOs in Egypt, the security situation in the Sinai, various ways to help Egypt's economy, the crisis in Syria, Iran, and several other topics. The senators and Morsy all agreed that the U.S.-Egypt relationship was crucial and that U.S. aid to Egypt was an important piece of maintaining that relationship as long as Egypt continues progressing toward democracy.
"I appreciate that he respects and understands the vital importance of the U.S-Egyptian relationship, but clearly there is a lot of work to be done before we can feel comfortable that he respects American values," Coons said. "Securing a positive relationship going forward is important and in America's national interest, but we also cannot stand by and tolerate bigotry and hatred by foreign leaders."
FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.