The Justice Department’s allegations that Sen. Bob Menendez for years abused his position as the Democratic leader of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to illicitly benefit the Egyptian government are putting heightened scrutiny on the circumstances surrounding recent U.S. actions taken toward Cairo.
The DOJ has accused Menendez, D-N.J., and his wife, Nadine Menendez, of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from three New Jersey businessmen in exchange for the senator, with help from his wife, using his position from 2018 to 2022 to benefit the Egyptian government, including on foreign military financing and foreign military sales.
“It’s a devastating series of allegations and as a committee we now have a responsibility to understand what Egypt was doing and what Egypt thought it was getting,” Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., who chairs the Foreign Relations Middle East subcommittee and has called on Menendez to resign, told reporters Tuesday. “There are serious implications for U.S. policy towards Egypt if, as the indictment suggests, they were trying to use illicit means to curry favor on the committee.”
Menendez, New Jersey’s senior senator, relinquished his position as Senate Foreign Relations chairman last week and pleaded not guilty to the charges in court on Wednesday.
He is accused of providing Egyptian officials sensitive information about U.S. embassy employees in Cairo; ghost-writing a letter for Egyptian officials to U.S. senators, asking them to support the release of $300 million in aid; and approving or removing holds on foreign military financing and exports of defense equipment to Egypt.
“Of course, there is the issue of Sen. Menendez being corrupt,” said Nancy Okail, president of the liberal Center for International Policy think-tank, who studies Egyptian military corruption, noting he hasn’t been found guilty. “Seeing this as only an individual case of one corrupt person is a mistake. This is part of a corrupting relationship between the U.S. and Egypt in the way they think and deal and manage the foreign aid to Egypt. It is transactional. It is not strategic.”
Menendez put no holds on aid
Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate and House foreign affairs panels have the option to place holds on large foreign weapons sales and the transfer of Foreign Military Financing funds, which are grants the State Department provides to foreign governments to buy U.S. weapons.
Menendez’ declining to place holds in Egypt’s case — he did do so on Turkey and Saudi Arabia over human rights abuses — took on added significance in recent years.
As the authoritarian government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came under criticism for its crackdowns on political opposition and human rights activists, a growing number of Democrats, led by Murphy, called for holding back annual security assistance.
Murphy protested the Biden administration’s decision this month to give Egypt a national security waiver to receive $235 million. Lawmakers used the fiscal 2022 appropriations deal to make $320 million in aid contingent upon Cairo meeting certain human rights benchmarks, but Congress also allowed the administration to use a waiver for up to $235 million. The remaining $85 million was withheld.
“The administration has provided a waiver on $235 million to Egypt,” Murphy said. “I would hope that our committee would consider using any ability it has to put a pause on those dollars pending an inquiry into what Egypt was doing.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken sidestepped a question last Friday on whether the release of the $235 million should be revisited in light of the DOJ’s allegations about Egypt’s corrupt influence operations campaign.
“This is obviously an active and ongoing legal matter, so you’ll understand that I have no comment on it,” Blinken said.
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., who became acting chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee this week, told reporters Thursday he was getting briefed by administration officials on plans for the $235 million but said he would place a hold if he deemed it necessary on disbursement of the funds before the fiscal year ends Saturday. Cardin, who signed a July letter led by Murphy opposing the release of the human rights-conditioned funds to Egypt, emphasized he hadn’t made a decision one way or the other on a hold.
The vast majority of the roughly $1.3 billion in U.S. foreign aid to Egypt is through FMF grants. Since fiscal 2012, Congress has placed democracy and human rights-related conditions on the release of differing amounts of that yearly largesse. Sisi came to power in 2013 in a military takeover that toppled the democratically elected Mohamed Morsi, though the U.S. didn’t call it a coup.
“Throughout my time in Congress, I have remained steadfast on the side of civil society and human rights defenders in Egypt,” Menendez said Monday in New Jersey, where he defended himself against the charges. “If you look at my actions related to Egypt during the period described in this indictment, and throughout my whole career, my record is clear and consistent in holding Egypt accountable for its unjust detention of American citizens and others, its human rights abuses, its deepening relationship with Russia and efforts that have eroded the independence of the nation’s judiciary.”
Okail agreed Menendez had criticized Sisi’s human rights record but noted he appears to have stopped doing so around the time he is alleged to have begun accepting bribes.
“Going back to the records of Menendez, he used to criticize Sisi. He used to even write letters and call for holding aid on human rights conditions,” she said. “Then he stopped, starting in 2019. So this is a curious case. He is saying he always criticized Egypt. There is a timeline and that timeline coincides when he started getting bribes from the Egyptian government in one way or another.”
Passes given to Egypt
One former lawmaker, a long-time critic of Egypt’s human rights record, is questioning anew the circumstances that undermined his legislative efforts to press for greater accountability toward Cairo.
“I got several tough-on-Egypt provisions into House-passed defense bills, which were then stripped in the Senate,” former Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., wrote last Friday on X, formerly known as Twitter. “I still don’t know why. But the idea that the chairman of the SFRC may then have been in a corrupt relationship with Egypt is horrifying.”
Malinowski, a House member from 2019 to 2023 and a top human rights official at the State Department during the Obama administration, said in an email that five provisions spread out over the fiscal 2021, 2022 and 2023 House National Defense Authorization measures got dropped in conference negotiations with the Senate.
One fiscal 2021 provision would have required the State Department to determine whether the Egyptian government’s sanctioning of intimidation and harassment of Americans and their family members rose to the level of triggering a suspension of security assistance as would be required under the 1976 law known as the Arms Export Control Act.
A provision in the fiscal 2022 bill would have required the State Department to report on allegations of systematic extrajudicial killings and torture by Egyptian security services and to determine whether those crimes constituted gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.
A provision in the fiscal 2023 bill would have subjected the planned transfer of two surplus U.S. Navy ships to Egypt to a requirement that the president first certify Cairo wasn’t engaged in activities such as arms purchases from Russia that were made sanctionable by a 2017 law.
And language in the fiscal 2023 omnibus spending deal that would have excluded $130 million in military aid to Egypt without a waiver unless human rights improvements were made got whittled down to $85 million in negotiations with the Senate.
The chair and ranking members of the Senate and House foreign affairs panels “always have veto rights on any NDAA amendment that is considered within their purview on the Foreign Relations/Foreign Affairs committees,” Seth Binder, director of advocacy at the Project on Middle East Democracy, said in an email.
Menendez’ role in dropping or watering down the provisions isn’t clear. Some senior Republicans in the House and Senate believe the security relationship with Egypt should take precedence over human rights and democracy concerns.
“I have no evidence that Menendez personally advocated against anything we passed in the House,” Malinowski said by email. “He was, however, a key negotiator in conference, and if he advocated for them, we certainly never got word of that.”
Worries about embassy staff
Other observers were struck by the DOJ allegation that Menendez, the son of Cuban political dissidents, exposed Egyptian nationals working for the U.S. embassy in Cairo to potential exposure and retaliation by Egyptian authorities.
Menendez is accused in May 2018 of sharing non-public information with Nadine, then his girlfriend, about the number and nationalities of individuals working at the U.S. embassy. Nadine is alleged to have forwarded that information to Egyptian American Wael Hana, a New Jersey businessman who is alleged to have conveyed it to an Egyptian government official.
“Although this information was not classified, it was deemed highly sensitive because it could pose significant operational security concerns if disclosed to a foreign government or if made public,” states the indictment.
Cairo has a track record under Sisi of rounding up and detaining political dissidents, activists and journalists and subjecting them to harsh and even life-endangering prison conditions.
A 2012 case involving the arrest and conviction of 43 pro-democracy and human right workers, some of them Americans, sparked outrage in Washington and spurred lawmakers to start conditioning portions of military aid to Egypt on its treatment of detainees and political prisoners.
Okail, then the director of Freedom House’s Egypt program, was one of the nongovernmental organization workers arrested. Then an Egyptian citizen, she fled the country in 2012 and was sentenced to five-years in prison in absentia. She and the other charged NGO workers were acquitted in 2018.
“The evidence presented here is pretty staggering and that piece about inquiring about the nationalities of employees and passing it along, that would seem to move it out of corruption and to straight-up espionage,” said Matt Duss, executive vice president at the Center for International Policy and a former foreign policy adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. “For the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to be doing that boggles my mind but so much of this boggles my mind.”
Soon after they started dating in 2018, Nadine introduced Menendez to Hana, who was born in Egypt and had close ties with Egyptian officials, according to the indictment. Hana, Menendez’s co-defendant, is alleged to have been the key conduit of information provided by Nadine to his contacts in the Egyptian government.
In his defense of the large quantities of cash and gold bars the FBI found in a search of his home, Menendez pointed to his family’s history as political refugees who had faced confiscation of their property in Cuba.
“This may seem old-fashioned, but these were monies drawn from my personal savings account based on the income that I have lawfully derived over those 30 years,” he said.