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McCain, Graham in Cairo press Egypt’s military to release political prisoners

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) in Cairo on Tuesday met with the leader of Egypt’s military, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and urged him to release all political prisoners as a starting point for holding free elections.

“In democracy, you sit down and talk to each other,” Graham said at a press conference Tuesday evening. “It is impossible to talk to somebody who is in jail.”

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The GOP senators are visiting Egypt at the request of President Obama, weeks after the army deposed democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi. They hope to press the military to quickly transition back to civilian rule. Since Morsi’s ouster, the former president has been under house arrest, with scores of his Muslim Brotherhood supporters imprisoned.

McCain and Graham also denounced the military takeover as a “coup,” a label the Obama administration has refused to use.

“We have said we share the democratic aspirations and criticism of the Morsi government that led millions of Egyptians into the streets. … We’ve also said that the circumstances of [Morsi’s] removal was a coup,” McCain said.

“I’m not here to go through the dictionary,” said McCain, when asked to explain his choice of the word coup. “If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.”

Obama has avoided calling the overthrow a coup in part because that determination would kick in laws that would block the billions in aid sent to Egypt each year, costing the U.S. crucial leverage over the country’s leaders.

The senators' statements came after a day of meetings with Egypt’s top civilian and military officials, including al-Sisi, the commander in chief of the Egyptian army, an important figure within the fractured country.

Egypt’s official news agency, MENA, offered few details about their discussions, saying only that the senators and al-Sisi “exchanged views” about how to end “the state of political polarization.”

Morsi was deposed after days of mass protests by opponents of his rule. Since his ouster, military forces have engaged in deadly clashes with Morsi supporters.

This story was updated at 1:36 p.m.

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