Washington, DC – The corruption charges against top United States Senator Bob Menendez could have been dreamt up by a Hollywood writer: They involve gold bars, envelopes stuffed with cash and a luxury car.
However, for many of Menendez’s colleagues in Congress, as well as rights advocates, the case is far more consequential than its movie-like intrigue.
Menendez is accused of accepting bribes in exchange for using his elected position to benefit the Egyptian government. But the allegations raise questions about the broader ties between the US and Egypt — a relationship that has been under scrutiny amid human rights concerns.
“This is not just an issue of one corrupt person. It is an issue of a problematic relationship that is not founded on the ideals and values of respect to democracy and human rights,” said Nancy Okail, president of the Center for International Policy, a US-based think tank.
Rights groups have accused Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government, which came to power in a 2013 military coup, of jailing tens of thousands of dissidents and outlawing virtually all political opposition.
El-Sisi’s administration has denied accusations of rights abuses while stressing the need to maintain stability in the country. But in Washington, calls for rethinking ties with Cairo have been growing — especially after last month’s indictment.
“This should spark a long overdue reassessment of the bilateral relationship between the US and Egypt,” Okail told Al Jazeera.
Menendez has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Formerly, in his role as the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Menendez had massive influence over US foreign policy. He stepped down from the role on September 22, the day the indictment against him was released.
Federal prosecutors allege that Menendez and his wife illegally accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from three businessmen in return for using his “official position to protect and enrich them and to benefit the Government of Egypt”.
According to the indictment, Menendez met with Egyptian officials and promised to facilitate arms sales to Cairo. He also provided associates with “highly sensitive” information — including details about US Embassy personnel in Cairo — which was then relayed to Egyptian officials.
Mai El-Sadany, executive director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP), a Washington, DC-based think tank, said the allegations are “extremely serious” and unprecedented.
“They indicate collusion with Egyptian military and security officials. They indicate interference on the part of Egyptian officials into policymaking. And they indicate that Egypt was using illegal tactics to influence our foreign policy,” El-Sadany told Al Jazeera.
Still, the response from the administration of US President Joe Biden has been muted. Officials have mostly refused to weigh in on the allegations against Menendez, citing the ongoing status of the legal proceedings.
Asked about the issue last month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he would not comment on an “active” legal matter.
“The administration should be furious at the Egyptian regime,” said Seth Binder, director of advocacy at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), a rights group. “This is supposed to be a strategic partner, a close partner of the United States.”
Binder added that the Biden administration could sanction Egyptian officials involved in the case, restrict military aid to Cairo or impose penalties for broader human rights abuses in Egypt.
But for now, there is no sign of that happening. In Congress, though, many Democrats are demanding more scrutiny of Washington’s partnership with Cairo.
Sen. Menendez should resign and there should be a full policy review of our relationship (including security assistance) with Egypt and investigation into potential foreign influence campaign.
— Rep. Jason Crow (@RepJasonCrow) September 26, 2023
Don Beyer, a Democratic congressman, called on the US to “note and respond forcefully to the covert Egyptian campaign to thwart American foreign policy aims detailed in the indictment”.
For his part, Democratic Senator Chris Murphy also said that the Foreign Relations Committee has a “responsibility” to understand what happened — and the extent to which Egypt was involved.
“There are serious implications for US policy towards Egypt if — as the indictment suggests — they were trying to use illicit means to curry favour on the committee,” he told reporters last month.
‘Hold’ on aid
On Saturday, statements turned into action as Senator Ben Cardin, who replaced Menendez as committee chair, placed a “hold” on $235m in aid to Egypt.
Cardin cited Egypt’s human rights record in a statement announcing the pause. But his move underscored the power his predecessor had over Washington policy in relation to Cairo.
“Congress has been clear, through the law, that the government of Egypt’s record on a range of critical human rights issues, good governance, and the rule of law must improve if our bilateral relationship is to be sustained,” Cardin said in a statement.
“Therefore, I will not allow foreign military financing currently under consideration to move forward.”
He also pledged to block future aid and arms sales to Egypt if its government “does not take meaningful and sustainable steps to improve the human rights conditions in its country”.
Earlier this year, US lawmakers had placed human rights conditions on $320m of the $1.3bn that Cairo receives annually from Washington.
But Blinken waived the conditions last month on the grounds that the assistance advances US interests, like “counterterrorism” efforts and stability in the Middle East.
Binder said the Menendez case played a role in the recent decision to freeze the $235m in aid. He noted that Senator Cardin would not have become the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee were it not for the indictment. “It certainly was a factor,” he told Al Jazeera.
It is unclear what will happen to the suspended funds now.
“We are continuing to consult closely with Congress and the Egyptian government on providing the foreign military financing package announced by the Secretary that advances our shared vision for a secure and prosperous region while ensuring tangible progress on human rights in Egypt,” a State Department spokesperson told Al Jazeera in an email.
The Egyptian embassy in Washington did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment by the time of publication.
‘Status quo thinking’
Biden came into office in 2021, promising to centre human rights in US foreign policy. In fact, as a candidate in 2020, he specifically slammed his predecessor Donald Trump for maintaining close ties with President el-Sisi.
“No more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator’,” he wrote in a social media post at that time, referring to the Egyptian president.
Mohamed Amashah is finally home after 486 days in Egyptian prison for holding a protest sign. Arresting, torturing, and exiling activists like Sarah Hegazy and Mohamed Soltan or threatening their families is unacceptable. No more blank checks for Trump’s “favorite dictator.” https://t.co/RtZkbGh6ik
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) July 12, 2020
Observers say rights violations in Egypt have continued in recent years, and some advocacy groups fear the abuses may intensify ahead of a presidential vote at the end of the year.
But since taking office, Biden has bolstered the alliance with Egypt, inaugurating a formal joint strategic dialogue and economic commission with the country.
Moreover, US officials often laud Egypt and praise its role in mediating ceasefires between Israel and Palestinian groups in Gaza.
El-Sadany, of TIMPE, blamed what she called “status quo thinking” in the US foreign policy establishment for Washington’s apparent unwillingness to adjust its posture towards Cairo.
“There is an incorrect assumption that if we shake the relationship with Egypt, and Egypt doesn’t receive the aid in full, that it will somehow upset the relationship with Israel,” she told Al Jazeera.
“But the reality is that Egypt acts in its own interests and that actually, this Egyptian regime is quite close to Israel, with the US aid or without it.”