The recent indictment of Sen. Bob Menendez, chairman of the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee highlights exploitation of his influential role in shaping American foreign policy to advance personal gain, particularly in the context of the complex U.S.-Egypt relationship. This controversy revolves around international arms sales, financial gain, and political influence, significantly impacting a delicate realm of American diplomacy.
According to a report by PBS, Menendez declared, “Over the years, there have been persistent efforts behind closed doors to mute my influence and undermine my political career.” This sentiment harkened back to a similar statement he made six years ago, addressing those he believed were working against him and vowing not to forget their actions.
Senator Bob Menendez’s response to the recent federal corruption charges, which also involve his wife and business associates, demonstrates that he is adopting a similar resolute position as he did when he confronted federal allegations almost a decade ago. The Senator asserts the prosecutors have distorted the ordinary activities of a congressional office and have unfairly targeted him and his wife. However, if these allegations are substantiated, they will present a damning narrative of how American policy towards an autocratic ally was compromised for personal gain.
For decades Egypt has been a beneficiary of American military aid. It currently receives approximately $1.3 billion annually in U.S military assistance, theoretically contingent upon Egypt’s progress in addressing its domestic human rights, as assessed by the State Department. As a result, decisions regarding the disbursement of this aid often becomes a contentious matter involving lawmakers, advocacy groups, and the White House.
Historically, the State Department as well as the executive branch have respected requests to postpone grants and weapons sales from the chair or ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Oddly, even while allegedly taking bribes from the Egyptians, Senator Menendez has frequently been a vocal critic of the Egyptian government. For instance, he criticized the Trump administration for hosting Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who visited the United States in 2019. On the occasion Menendez urged then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to raise human rights to the Egyptian leader.
However, federal prosecutors contend that Senator Menendez played a different role behind the scenes, receiving money, a luxury car, and gifts, including bars of gold, from three New Jersey businessmen—Wael Hana, Jose Uribe, and Fred Daibes—in exchange for aiding the Egyptian regime.
Prosecutors also claim Mendez provided sensitive information about U.S. diplomats in Cairo, which assisted the Egyptian government covertly. Furthermore, the indictment alleges that Menendez “improperly advised and pressured” a U.S. agricultural official to secure a contract for Hana as the exclusive supplier of halal meat to Egypt.
According to the arraignment, Senator Menendez maintained confidential relationships with Egyptian officials and business figures throughout 2018, and readily shared sensitive information with his associates concerning U.S. policy toward Cairo. During a private dinner, Senator Menendez told Wael Hana that the U.S. government had lifted a ban on the sale of small arms and ammunition to Egypt, information that Hana subsequently relayed to an Egyptian official.
According to a report by Politico, ‘Menendez is alleged to have drafted Cairo’s lobbying appeal to other U.S. senators in a bid to secure support for the release of $300 million in U.S. aid reserved for Egypt. After a meeting with Egyptian military officials, Menendez reportedly had his wife Nadine convey to Hana that he had given his approval for the sale of 46,000 120mm target practice rounds and 10,000 rounds of tank ammunition, with a total worth of $99 million’.
In a text message to Nadine, which she forwarded to Hana, Menendez is said to have noted, “NOTE: These tank rounds are for tanks they have had for many years. They are using these in the Sinai for the counter-terrorism campaign.”
The State Department subsequently announced its approval of the sale, which included high-explosive and armor-piercing rounds manufactured by General Dynamics. The sale was intended to aid Egypt in its fight against Islamic State militants and to provide target rounds for training M1 Abrams tank crews.
Adrienne Watson, the White House National Security Council spokesperson, declined to comment when approached for this story, according to the Washington Post. State Department representatives did not immediately respond to requests for comment as well.
Politico said, regarding these allegations, Egypt’s Ambassador in Washington, Motaz Zahran, offered only a brief response, stating, “Not really.”
Menendez is also accused of intervening in Egyptian diplomatic matters and advocating for U.S. involvement in favor of Cairo. After a meeting with an Egyptian official referred to as “the general,” prosecutors contend that Menendez inserted himself into a longstanding diplomatic dispute involving Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia concerning access to the Nile River and a significant Ethiopian dam project situated near the river’s source.
The construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has been a key foreign policy concern for Egypt, given its heavy reliance on uninterrupted water flow from the Nile to sustain its population concentrated along the river’s delta and banks.
In April 2020, Menendez wrote to then-Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Pompeo expressing concerns about the “stalled negotiations between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan over [the Dam].” He called upon the administration to significantly increase the State Department’s involvement in the dam negotiations, according to the indictment.
Senator Menendez was the sponsor of the Ethiopia sanctions bill, S.3199. He has also opined on Ethiopia’s internal conflict, namely the war in the northern Tigray region, where he wrote letters pressing President Biden to sanction the country, which at the time was engaged in active fighting with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a rebel group which sought to overthrow the government in Addis Ababa. In one of his letters Menendez remarked, “I continue to assert that Ethiopian officials have committed genocide in Tigray, and I strongly urge the Biden administration to make its own assessment as soon as possible,”.
We do know the armed group’s external reps lobbied U.S lawmakers, including Rep. Brad Sherman of California’s 32nd congressional district, and Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York’s fifth congressional district. Whether or not the Senator Menendez and others were petitioned legally, or otherwise received bribes by the external affairs unit of the TPLF is to be determined, but the latest indictment increases potential scrutiny.
From 2017 onwards, Egyptian authorities aimed at slowing down progress on GERD, even backed rebels, who in return were willing to disrupt the construction of the dam by closing supply routes in Western Ethiopia. Local media recounted several instances of these stories. During the war with the TPLF, secret flights originating in Sudan provided military equipment to the rebels in the Tigray region. The government in Ethiopia has not said whether these were Egyptian in origin.
The embattled Senator has so far rejected calls to resign his seat but has temporarily stepped down from the Foreign Relations Committee. The bigger question remains, the extent to which American foreign policy is open to manipulation by foreign entities willing to use increasingly sophisticated means to bribe receptive lawmakers. Therein lies a fundamental challenge, as United States tries to engage an ever more complex world.