U.S. senators urge release of prisoners
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NEW: Sen. Graham wants "an Egyptian solution to an Egyptian problem"

"The circumstances of (Morsy's) removal was a coup," McCain says

Sens. McCain and Graham are traveling at the request of President Obama

A longtime ally of the U.S., Egypt gets $1.3 billion in military aid a year

Cairo CNN  — 

U.S. Sen. John McCain says this summer’s ouster of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy was “a coup,” a description that goes against the statements so far from the Obama administration.

The White House has avoided using that term for the Egyptian military’s ouster of Morsy.

“We have said we share the democratic aspirations and criticism of the Morsy government that led millions of Egyptians into the streets … . We’ve also said that the circumstances of (Morsy’s) removal was a coup,” McCain told reporters in Cairo on Tuesday.

McCain also referred to the ouster as a “coup” in July, but he chose to reiterate that description on Egyptian soil at a time when the country is roiling with unrest and violence in the ouster’s aftermath.

He and Sen. Lindsey Graham, both Republicans, met with officials there to press for a quick return to civilian life. The senators were visiting the country for the first time since its president was removed from office.

McCain said they were not in Egypt to dwell on the past but to help the country move forward in a peaceful, democratic manner. He and Graham also urged the government’s release of political prisoners.

Graham said violence will destroy a future for Egypt, but he expressed optimism. U.S. aid to the country is one of the best investments in the world, he added.

“We’re here to help find an Egyptian solution to an Egyptian problem,” Graham said.

For the past 35 days and counting, the country has been strafed with violence during protests by Muslim Brotherhood supporters against Egypt’s military-backed interim government.

McCain and Graham are expected to meet with government officials Tuesday. They’ll also meet separately with the Muslim Brotherhood another time.

The conflict erupted when Egypt’s top general overthrew Morsy, who became Egypt’s first democratically elected president in June 2012, after popular protests forced the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled the country for 30 years.

But a year into Morsy’s term, many Egyptians wanted him out, too.

That’s when the military stepped in, naming an interim president and cabinet, who are laying the groundwork for a transition to a new, democratically elected government.

But the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters want none of it, taking to the streets and demanding that Morsy be reinstated.

Clashes between the two sides have left more than 200 dead. Human rights groups have accused the military of using excessive force.

Egyptian minister meets with U.S., EU diplomats about violence

No coup here

The stalemate puts Washington in a difficult spot.

While widely labeled a coup, the Obama administration has refused to refer to Morsy’s ouster as such.

If the United States formally calls the move a coup, it would have to cut off $1.3 billion in aid. And that “would limit our ability to have the kind of relationship we think we need with the Egyptian armed forces,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said.

The United States helps Egypt because it’s one of only two Arab countries – along with Jordan – that have made peace with Israel. If Washington pulls its aid, it could affect prospects for peace in the Middle East.

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In the past 30 years, only Israel has received more U.S. aid than Egypt.

The American senators, who are making the trip at the request of U.S. President Barack Obama, will press for an end to the political stalemate.

“The Egyptian military must move more aggressively toward turning over control to the civilian population, civilian organizations,” Graham, of South Carolina, said when asked about the purpose of the trip on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday.

“The military can’t keep running the country. We need democratic elections. The (Muslim) Brotherhood needs to get off the streets and back into the political arena and fight your differences there, and we need to put Egypt back to work. If this continues, it’s going to be a failed state. That’s why we’re going.”

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CNN’s Reza Sayah contributed from Cairo and Michael Martinez wrote from Los Angeles.