CAIRO -- Egypt's military-backed government on Tuesday harshly rejected statements by visiting U.S. Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who called the military's month-old takeover of power as a "coup."
McCain (R-Ariz.) and Graham (R-S.C.) had used the word "coup" at an afternoon press conference to describe the manner in which Egypt's military had seized power from the Muslim Brotherhood's elected president, Mohammed Morsi, in early July.
"We have said we share the democratic aspirations and criticism of the Morsi government that led millions of Egyptians into the streets," McCain said. "We’ve also said that the circumstances of [Morsi’s] removal was a coup."
A spokesman for the interim government, Sherief Shawki, immediately dismissed the characterization. "There is a roadmap, which means that what happened was not a coup and that it was Egyptian people who decided on the roadmap," he told Reuters in an interview. Shawki also said the involvement of McCain and Graham was unwelcome, adding, "We don't want foreign intervention to be imposed on us."
In a statement later on Tuesday, distributed by Egypt's Middle East News Agency and reported by Al Jazeera's Rawya Rageh, a top media advisor to Egypt's interim president, Adly Mansour, offered a stronger rebuke. The statement accused McCain of twisting facts, and dismissed his remarks as "clumsy," or "irresponsible," depending on the translation. (On Twitter, bilingual Arabic speakers debated the best translation for the word, "kharqa," which also could be interpreted as "moronic" or "irrational.")
During their press conference Tuesday afternoon, McCain and Graham urged the Egyptian government to find a way to reach an accord with the Muslim Brotherhood protesters, and called on the military to release the handful of party leaders who have recently been arrested.
“In democracy, you sit down and talk to each other,” said Graham. “It is impossible to talk to somebody who is in jail.”
Pressed by local journalists on whether the pair really meant that the military-backed overthrow was a coup, a term that has been the subject of heated debate and tensions in Egypt, McCain responded coolly. “I’m not here to go through the dictionary," he said. "If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.”
In an interview with the Daily Beast shortly before leaving the country, McCain said he wasn't surprised by the stern response of the Egyptian media, because the press corps was, in his view, "very strongly pro-coup."
McCain and Graham also called on the Muslim Brotherhood to renounce violence. In the Daily Beast interview, McCain said he had urged members of the party during meetings in Cairo to return to the negotiating table with the interim government.
The Obama administration has declined to call the military ouster a coup, because the distinction would legally jeopardize billions of dollars of American aid to the Egyptian government, which U.S. officials see as key to maintaining a stake in the deteriorating situation.
As Egypt heads into a long holiday weekend, many fear that the military will seek to end a pair of month-old sit-ins by the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo -- a crackdown that could result in scores of deaths. In two previous clashes between security forces and anti-military protesters at the camps, nearly 100 people have been killed.