U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey (front) walks next to Lieutenant General Sami Anan (right) Egypt’s armed forces chief of staff, upon his arrival to meet with head of Egypt’s ruling military council Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi at the Ministry of Defense in Cairo.(Photo: Reuters)
Republican Senator John McCain is due to arrive in Cairo on Sunday for talks with senior Egyptian officials in a bid to end the diplomatic stand-off over the referral of six Americans to a criminal court on charges of violating laws which regulate foreign civil society operations in Egypt.
McCain, who heads the Armed Services Committee in the US Congress, comes to Cairo days after a visit by the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, which addressed the same issue, as well as other matters related to joint US-Egyptian military cooperation.
Speaking to Ahram Online on Thursday, Egyptian and US diplomatic sources said that McCain is going to press the same demand as Dempsey: an immediate suspension of arrest orders and travel ban against the American citizens referred to the criminal court, and who are currently taking refuge in the US Embassy in Cairo's Garden City.
"Demspey asked for their release and demanded they return with him on his plane but his request was declined by [his senior Egyptian interlocutors] who made it clear that they cannot take such a move in violation of Egyptian judiciary authority, and that such a move would ignite an unprecedented animosity in Egypt against the US," said one Egyptian official.
"McCain would have no better luck. This is at an impasse," said another Egyptian official, adding, "there is only one way for these Americans to lawfully exit the country and that is for a court of law to find them not guilty of the charges against them; the other way is for the Americans to attempt and get them out unlawfully and this would trigger a really huge crisis for both countries".
The legal exit, the same sources argue, is "a possibility that could be worked out" if the concerned US citizens, whose NGOs have been working in Cairo without a legal permit since 2005, apply to register and operate according to the relevant laws.
"In this case, according to the law, they could only be fined and allowed to leave the country but this is a process that could take up to a few weeks," said a legal source who follows the issue.
The recent raids on the headquarters of three American civil society offices working in Egypt -- Freedom House and two organisations associated with the US Republic and Democratic Parties -- have seriously upset Egyptian-American relations.
The US Congress condemned the raids, which were conducted in parallel with those on the offices of several Egyptian NGOs accused of receiving illegal foreign funding.
Spokesmen for the US State Department and the White House voiced frustration with the Egyptian stand. Some American political figures went as far as threatening to cut US economic and military assistance to Egypt.
However, ahead of this week's visit of Dempsey, US President Barack Obama called on Congress to keep the US aid package to Egypt untouched, saying it is beneficial to the democratic transformation of Egypt.
Egyptian and American officials say that several Congress and Administration delegations are due to visit Egypt in the coming weeks to discuss the matter.
Litigation is also due to begin over this period. If the US decided to opt for a legal 'exit' then the crisis could be over in a maximum of four weeks, claims a legal source speaking to Ahram Online.
When Dempsey's request to escort the American citizens back to the US was declined, the chairman cancelled a scheduled press conference at which he would have announced an end to recent Egypt-US tensions, sources say.
McCain's forthcoming visit to Cairo is unlikely to produce a resolution to the crisis, Egyptian diplomatic sources say. They insist Egypt decision makers are determined that the issue would be settled via a judicial, rather than a purely diplomatic process.