UNION CITY, NEW JERSEY – SEPTEMBER 25: Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) speaks during a press conference at Hudson County Community College’s North Hudson Campus on September 25, 2023 in Union City, New Jersey. Menendez spoke during a press conference where he stated that he would not resign as senator and would serve out his term. The three-term senator and his wife are accused of taking bribes of gold bars, a luxury car, and cash in exchange for using his position to help the government of Egypt and other corrupt acts according to an indictment from SDNY unsealed on Friday. The indictment is the second in eight years against Menendez. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
Few countries rank worse than Egypt for human rights abuses. A 2013 coup installed a repressive military government whose soldiers slaughtered hundreds of the deposed president’s supporters, kicking off a “decade of shame” with 60,000 political prisoners, a censored press, and protest criminalized under a zero-tolerance policy of dissent.
The abuses drove Amnesty International to urge the international community to “pressure the Egyptian authorities to take meaningful steps to end the cycle of abuse and impunity.”
Sen. Bob Menendez was in a prime position to do that as a member and then chair of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which can influence U.S. military aid to other countries.
Instead, prosecutors say, he secretly dined with Egyptian officials, signed off on billions in aid despite Congressional concerns, and even ghost-wrote a letter from an Egyptian official to other U.S. senators asking them to release $300 million in U.S. aid that had been withheld over Egypt’s human rights record, according to a federal criminal indictment against Menendez unsealed Friday.
“If it is true, then this is a very deep level of corruption that really does have far-reaching implications for how the U.S. is viewed in the world and how safe Americans are,” said Sarah Yager, Washington director of Human Rights Watch.
Federal prosecutors’ bombshells about Egypt may have been the least sexy part of the indictment, with the public’s spotty knowledge of international affairs and investigators’ eye-popping photos of gold bars and money-stuffed envelopes that prosecutors allege Menendez and his wife took as bribes.
But the allegations of Menendez scrambling to help Egyptian officials and keep U.S. aid flowing to the northeast African country despite widely documented and alarming human rights abuses are inarguably the indictment’s most consequential claims.
“You have a powerful senator in a privileged position on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, potentially weighing in on one of the primary tools for advancing U.S. interests in Egypt, which is military aid,” said Seth Binder, director of advocacy at the Washington, D.C.-based Project on Middle East Democracy.
Speaking to reporters Monday, Menendez said he has placed holds on foreign military sales and funding to Egypt and directly challenged Egypt President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on human rights abuses, unjust detention, and press freedoms.
“Throughout my 30 years in the House of Representatives and the Senate, I have always worked to hold accountable those countries, including Egypt, for human rights abuses, repression of the citizenry, civil society, and more,” Menendez said. “Those who now are attempting to malign my actions as it relates to Egypt simply don’t know the facts.”
The U.S. has sent Egypt $1.3 billion a year in military aid since the late 1970s, the most of any country except Israel.
“That’s a massive amount, to be putting his finger on the scales,” Binder said.
As concerns over human rights abuses in Egypt have grown in recent years, so too have calls to withhold that aid. President Biden was authorized to withhold $320 million this year and $300 million in recent years if Egypt didn’t meet congressionally mandated benchmarks to show its progress on human rights. While human rights advocates said Egypt fell far short, the Biden administration withheld just $85 million this year and $130 million last year.
“$300 million can be withheld by the president and should be withheld by the president, if Egypt’s human rights record does not improve,” Yager said. “So that’s on President Biden’s desk — he makes that decision. However, as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Menendez can veto that. He can stop any arms, security assistance, weapons, material, etcetera, from going through. And he didn’t.”
Instead, prosecutors say, Menendez had multiple secret meetings and communications with various unnamed Egyptian officials between 2018 and 2022 — a time when the indictment says Menendez “possessed substantial influence over foreign military sales and foreign military financing to Egypt” because of his role on the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee.
Menendez’s wife, Nadine, and Wael Hana, an Egyptian-American businessman and friend of the couple, typically acted as go-betweens, prosecutors say. Nadine arranged several dinners — paid for by Hana or his associates — and other rendezvous at Menendez’s Washington, D.C., office and restaurants there and in New Jersey and Egypt, where the unnamed Egyptian officials made various requests to Menendez related to foreign military sales and foreign military financing, according to the indictment.
“Anytime you need anything you have my number and we will make everything happen,” Nadine Menendez allegedly texted an Egyptian official in March 2020.
Within days, prosecutors allege, she arranged for him to meet Menendez to discuss a dam Ethiopia was building on the Nile River that was a key foreign policy priority for Egypt. Afterward, Menendez wrote to U.S. officials about the dam, urging them to act on stalled negotiations between countries in the region that threatened the project, according to the indictment.
The indictment suggests Menendez even helped Egyptian officials prepare to be grilled by American officials over human rights abuses. Prosecutors wrote that Menendez advised one Egyptian official before a meeting with several U.S. senators around June 21, 2021, what questions they might ask. The same day, investigative journalist Michael Isikoff reported that Abbas Kamel, the chief of Egyptian intelligence, was in town to meet with several members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who planned to ask him about Egypt’s role in the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Nadine Menendez allegedly texted the official a news article about the human rights matter so he could “prepare your rebuttals,” according to the indictment.
Menendez also gave Hana sensitive information about the staffing at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo to pass on to Egyptian officials, according to the indictment.
If true, that could have endangered Egyptian nationals who work at the U.S. embassy, Binder said.
“The Egyptian government is known to try to pressure those who work at foreign embassies for information, classified or other information that can help them, and so (Menendez) providing that type of information not only puts them and their families at significant risk in a country that is so repressive, but also could potentially expose sensitive information,” Binder said.
Hana even called the senator “our man” in one text offering help to an Egyptian official, prosecutors say.
As thanks for Menendez’s help, Hana put Nadine Menendez on his company payroll for a low-or-no-show job and gave the couple money and other bribes, according to the indictment.
The allegations against Menendez are “just the latest example of the Egyptian regime infiltrating and trying to manipulate the U.S. political system and U.S. foreign policy,” Binder said. “It’s bad enough when adversaries do that, but U.S. partners should definitely not be doing that.”
Prosecutors’ claims, if true, can have “a real impact on American security,” Yager agreed.
“Any of these dictatorships in the Middle East that have such massive and deep-seated human rights abuses are not stable. The United States is giving them all of this security assistance and hitching their wagon to Egypt and Saudi Arabia and UAE,” Yager said. “The human rights abuses really mean that they are a powder keg, and that’s not great for Americans.”
Calls to withdraw aid
Less than two weeks ago, President Biden agreed to withhold just $85 million of this year’s $1.3 billion aid for Egypt.
Yager’s group, along with others like the Project on Middle East Democracy, had implored the Biden administration to freeze the full $320 million that’s subject to human rights certification.
After Friday’s indictment came out, they renewed those pleas. While the allocation has been approved, it’s unclear if it’s been delivered, with the current fiscal year not ending until Saturday. Even if Biden doesn’t act, certain members of Congress can act to hold the funds, Binder said.
Biden has not commented publicly on the Menendez indictment — the White House press secretary on Monday called it a “serious matter” — or the renewed calls for withholding aid to Egypt.
Former U.S. Rep. Tom Malinowski last year also urged the Biden administration to withhold more support to Egypt, citing concerns over its human rights abuses. He and Rep. Don Beyer (D-Virginia) formed an Egypt Human Rights Caucus in 2021 to shine more attention on abuses.
Sunday, Beyer added his voice to those calling on Menendez to resign. And Monday, Malinowski mused on social media about how the allegations against Menendez might have impacted his past efforts to hold Egypt accountable.
“When I was in Congress, I got several tough-on-Egypt provisions into House-passed defense bills, which were then stripped in the Senate. I still don’t know why,” he wrote. “But the idea that the chairman of the SFRC may then have been in a corrupt relationship with Egypt is horrifying.”
Sophie Nieto-Muñoz contributed.
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