CAIRO (AP) — Sen. John McCain said Monday Egypt's military rulers have reassured him that authorities are working "diligently" to resolve a criminal case against U.S. pro-democracy groups that has brought relations between the two allies to their lowest point in decades.
As part of a crackdown on nonprofit organizations, Egyptian authorities have referred 16 Americans and 27 others to trial on charges that include the illegal use of foreign funds, expected to begin on Feb. 26. McCain chairs one of the four American groups targeted.
McCain didn't elaborate on how the case may be resolved. He had met earlier in Cairo with the country's military ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi.
"He gave us his assurance that they are working very diligently to try to resolve the NGO issue," McCain told reporters after a day of conferences with Egyptian officials, newly elected lawmakers, and members of Egypt's powerful Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood.
U.S. officials and legislators have threatened to cut Egypt's $1.5 billion package over the crackdown on the democracy groups. The case began in December with raids on the groups' Egypt offices, and Egyptian judges and officials subsequently accused them of using foreign funds to foment unrest in the country through supporting political activities and protests.
McCain said threats to cut U.S. aid to Egypt, that now includes an annual $1.3 billion to the military and about $250 million in economic aid, may be counterproductive in resolving the non-governmental organization issue.
"The way we approach this issue of NGOs is with some guarded optimism that we will resolve this issue fairly soon," he said. "We don't think it helps progress on this very difficult situation for American citizens to make threats. We are not making threats. There is plenty of time to make threats.
"What we are seeking in all our meetings today was ...the mutuality of interests, common cause and our support in this very difficult transition to democracy."
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who was with McCain appealed to the Egyptian authorities to allow the seven accused U.S. citizens banned from travel to return home.
"The best way to show that model (respecting democracy and freedom) and send a message is to enable these individuals to return home and to respect the organizations they have worked hard to build," Blumenthal told reporters.
He was referring to Egypt's upcoming challenge of writing a new constitution, which he said should incorporate the highest standards of international conduct in respecting democracy and freedom.
Egypt under Mubarak was Washington's closest Arab ally in the Middle East and a loyal partner in the fight against Islamic extremism and terror. Mubarak also kept the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy in the Mideast.
But with the military on the defensive over criticism that it has bungled the transition to democracy and with the rise of an Islamist-dominated parliament, Egypt's transitional rulers appear to be more ready to publicly challenge the U.S. and Israel, even at the risk of losing critical foreign aid. That stance taps into widespread anti-Israel and anti-U.S. sentiment in Egypt.
The ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has regularly accused "foreign hands" of backing continued protests against its rule. And the Islamist parties that control over two-thirds of the newly elected parliament have threatened to review the peace treaty with Israel if U.S. aid to Egypt is halted.
Four U.S.-based nonprofit groups are among those targeted, as well as a German agency.
McCain, a member of the Senate's Armed Services Committee, is leading a Congressional committee visiting various countries in the Middle East as well as Afghanistan.