Dozens of gold bars. Wads of cash. A black Mercedes-Benz convertible. These are just some of the bribes the Department of Justice alleges that Senator Bob Menendez received while illicitly aiding the Egyptian government of President Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi. Not surprisingly, the accusations are straining the relationship between the U.S. and Egypt, as Congress considers whether to hold the country accountable for purportedly bribing one of their own through various intermediaries.
After the news of Menendez’s indictment broke, prominent members of Congress called for a recently greenlit tranche of $235 million in military aid to Cairo to be put on ice. The funding was approved by the Biden administration via a national security waiver in spite of Congressional concerns about Egyptian human rights abuses.“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,” Senator Chris Murphy, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters on Tuesday.
But despite the outrage on the Hill, Middle East experts doubt that the allegations will lead to a lasting shift in the close relationship between Egypt and the U.S. that has lasted for over 40 years. Egypt is the third-largest recipient of American military aid after Israel and Ukraine, receiving about $1.3 billion annually. “Egypt is in the dog house already with Congress on human rights and dalliances with Russia. The Menendez affair surely won’t help their image here,” says Aaron David Miller, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “But the administration will likely continue to do business as usual, which is to protect most of the military assistance and the bilateral relationship.”
The loudest calls for Egypt to face consequences are coming from the human rights community. “This money is tainted,” says Seth Binder, an official at the Project on Middle East Democracy in Washington. His organization is among the groups pressing lawmakers to withhold military aid to Egypt in light of the allegations of Egyptian inference in U.S. policymaking. “This is an Egyptian government that is meddling in U.S. politics and foreign policy in an illegal way.” Binder says that Congress should look at whether to make changes to the federal budget for 2024 in light of the allegations and Egypt’s human rights violations. “They could consider topline reductions, removing the national security waiver on the portion that's conditioned on human rights or increasing the portion that's conditioned on human rights.”
As ranking member and then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee since 2021, Senator Menendez has been in a position to influence aid, weapons and diplomatic assistance to Egypt for years. According to the indictment, Menendez allegedly ghost wrote a letter for an Egyptian official to convince U.S. senators to approve $300 million in assistance to Egypt. He also reportedly passed on sensitive nonpublic information about the number and nationality of U.S. embassy personnel in Egypt, which could have been used for intelligence purposes. The indictment alleges that he repeatedly intervened in favor of Egypt on human rights issues, foreign military sales and Egypt’s dispute with Ethiopia about the Nile River’s waters.
On Sept. 27, Menendez pleaded not guilty to 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,” Menendez said at a press conference on Sept. 25.
The backlash against Menendez and Egypt has come from both sides of the aisle. “The Biden administration should revisit its military assistance determination made earlier this month and withhold much more of that funding,” says Democratic Rep. Don Beyer of Virginia and “we will be having those conversations as we process the indictment and other information in the days and weeks ahead.” GOP Rep. Mike Lawler of the House Foreign Affairs Committee said in a statement that Congress should “immediately open a formal congressional investigation into Senator Menendez’s questionable conduct and his purported interactions with foreign agents from Egypt in an alleged quid pro quo scheme.” Some Republicans including Rep. George Santos, who is himself facing charges, offered Menendez rhetorical support, defending the politician’s right to continue to serve as long as he has not been found guilty.
For all the outrage, however, the administration may be reluctant to come down on Egypt too hard, experts say. “I don't imagine a sharp break at all. I just imagine a much scratchier relationship, which is what the Egyptians were trying to head off,” says Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center For Strategic and International Studies. “The Biden administration doesn't want an adversarial relationship with Egypt. But it does want to send a message of displeasure and it does want to change Egypt’s behavior. I think things like meetings between the Presidents, which were never easy, are going to get much harder.”
The State Department declined to comment on the backlash against Egypt, citing the ongoing legal case against Menendez.
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