Senator John McCain may have taken a hawkish line on Syria, during his visit to Egypt on Monday, but his tone was more conciliatory on Egypt's crackdown on U.S. nongovernmental organizations. "The way we approach this issue of NGOs is with some guarded optimism that we will resolve this issue fairly soon," McCain told a Cairo press conference, referring to the case that threatens to send six Americans currently in Egypt to prison for their work promoting democracy in the wake of the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. "We don't think it helps progress on this very difficult situation for American citizens to make threats," McCain added. "We are not making threats. There is plenty of time to make threats."
U.S.-Egypt relations have hit their lowest point in decades following the raids on 17 NGOs last December that resulted in the criminal prosecution of 16 Americans (10 of whom are no longer in the country) and 27 others on charges that include the unauthorized distribution of foreign funds. The accused include officials from three of Washington's most prominent democracy-promotion groups: Freedom House, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute (the board of which is chaired by McCain). The trial is set to begin on Feb. 26.
Last week, Egyptian state television appear to fuel popular outrage by alleging a U.S. plot to use the NGOs to undermine Egypt's stability and progress. The crackdown has spurred anger in Washington, where some lawmakers have threatened to cut off the $1.3 billion annual stipend paid by the U.S. to the Egyptian military until the crisis has been resolved.
McCain's softer tone on Monday may signal a strategic backpedaling in American rhetoric at least on Egyptian soil even as Egyptian officials continue to ramp up their own. Or it may signal an initial victory for Egyptian defiance. Threats to cut off Egypt's aid have done little to halt the investigation in Cairo, either because Egyptian officials are banking that Washington is bluffing, or because the aid simply isn't that important. But with a travel ban in place over the 43 NGO workers under investigation and the trial less than a week away, McCain said Monday that he had not come to negotiate the NGO workers' release, but that he was "confident" that the issue would be resolved soon.
McCain, leading a four-person congressional delegation, also criticized the Obama Administration's handling of the escalating crisis in Syria, charging that inaction "while people are being slaughtered" is "an affront to everything the United states believes in." The Senator clarified comments he made in Kabul two days ago that seemed to imply that he supports arming the Syrian rebels. "I am not saying that the United States needs to directly supply arms to the [the Free Syrian Army]," he said. "I'm saying that there are ways to give assistance." He said that could range from technical and medical assistance to GPS and the "wherewithal" to defend themselves.