CAIRO (AP) — U.S. Sen. John McCain said Wednesday he has expressed strong disapproval to Egypt's Islamist president about his past comments about Jews. Despite an uproar in Washington over the remarks, he said he and other congressmen will press for more aid to Egypt's ailing economy.
A congressional delegation led by McCain met with Mohammed Morsi a day after the White House strongly denounced his remarks as "deeply offensive." Morsi made the comments in a 2010 speech, as a leader in the Muslim Brotherhood before he became president, but they resurfaced recently when aired on an Egyptian TV show.
In the video, Morsi refers to "Zionists" as "bloodsuckers who attack Palestinians" as well as "the descendants of apes and pigs." He also called U.S. President Barack Obama a liar.
Presidential spokesman Yasser Ali said Morsi told the delegation Wednesday that the remarks were taken out of context, aimed at criticizing Israeli policies, and not Jews. Morsi told them distinction must be made between criticism of what he called the "racist" policies of the Israelis against the Palestinians and insults against the Jewish faith.
Morsi told them the remarks were part of a speech against Israeli aggression in Gaza and "assured them of his respect for monotheistic religions, freedom of belief and the practice of religions."
McCain said the delegation voiced its disapproval and had a "constructive discussion" with Morsi.
"We leave it to the president to make any further comments on this matter that he may wish," the Arizona Republican said.
The delegation clearly sought to move beyond the unexpected diplomatic flap to focus on Egypt's economy. McCain told reporters the congressional delegation will push for an additional $480 million in budget assistance to Egypt.
All of us are supportive," he said. "We are working hard to try to see that this money is forthcoming."
Egypt's economy has been in a slide since the fall of Hosni Mubarak two years ago. The unrest has scared away foreign investors and crippled the vital tourism industry, both key foreign currency earners for Egypt.
With less currency coming into its coffers, the country's foreign reserves have dried up, dropping by more than half, undermining the value of the Egyptian currency, while government deficits have mounted.
Egypt is currently negotiating a $4.8 billion loan with the International Monetary Fund seen as key to helping close the budget gap and, more importantly, as a stamp of approval for investors to return.
The talks were derailed when Morsi balked at implementing tax increases sought under the package. At the same time, political tension has mounted over the newly adopted constitution and moves by Morsi that opponents have denounced as a grab of authority.
McCain dismissed his comments last year calling for U.S. to use aid as leverage to push for democratic progress in Egypt. He called for patience from the U.S., saying that expectations of democratic transition are high from all sides.
"The fact is that the economy of Egypt is in such condition that it requires expeditious aid to be supplied," he said. "It is hard to have democracy when people are not eating."
Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, urged Morsi to finalize the talks with the IMF to ease the flow of U.S. assistance.
"The Egyptian economy is going to collapse if something is not done quickly," he said. "We urge the president, Morsi and he understands this, to get an agreement with the IMF.
"It is very difficult for American taxpayers to invest in a country that the IMF would not give a loan. So, one, the quicker that they can get IMF approval the easier it is for the aid to flow," he said.
The senators said they have also pressed on Morsi on addressing the criticism by his opponents over the recently adopted constitution, saying that women and minority rights must be protected. They also called for allowing international observers to monitor Egypt's upcoming parliamentary elections, likely to be held this spring.
Graham said despite U.S. economic troubles, he would urge American investors to come to Egypt but the Egyptians must "showcase their best behavior" to attract them.
"You are going to have to explain to the world that there is a process to amend the constitution," he said.
Other senators also raised concern about the deteriorating security situation in Sinai, saying they raised the issue during their meeting with Morsi and Egypt's Defense Minister Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.
Senator Richard Blumenthal, of Democrat from Connecticut, Sinai security is not only for security of Egypt and Israel but also aimed at depriving terrorists from a safe haven and stopping human trafficking.
He said in the quest for better security in Sinai and relations with Israel, he will work encourage cooperation in training and sharing of skills. The U.S. has been committed to an annual package of $1.3 billion military assistance to Egypt since it signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979.