For Egypt, Menéndez was key to accessing billions in US aid | ET REALITY


After decades as one of the largest recipients of American foreign aid in the world, the Egyptian government was nervous about how long generosity at that level would continue. But when the United States cut off a portion of aid in 2017 over Egypt’s dismal human rights record, surprising Cairo, Egyptian officials found an ally in Senator Robert J. Menendez of New Jersey.

He turned out to be the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a position that Egypt evidently felt could help its standing in Washington. And even when he accused the Trump administration If he was lax when it came to Egypt, prosecutors say he was doing favors for Egyptian officials who had met him through his then-girlfriend: authorizing arms sales and secretly helping pressure Washington to release funds.

In exchange, according to a federal indictment against Menendez unsealed Friday, Menendez and his wife, Nadine Menendez, received hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, checks and gold bars.

It was a price that Egyptian officials clearly considered worth paying.

Since the late 1970s, Washington has sent Cairo up to $1.3 billion each year as a legacy of Egypt’s peace deal with Israel in the Camp David Accords, money that Egypt treasures as a sign of its strategic importance and that has paid for his always. growing military arsenal.

For Egypt, the United States is an indispensable sponsor, which it constantly tries to convince of its value on issues such as terrorism, Israel’s security, and migration to Europe. Located in the southeastern Mediterranean, on Israel’s western border, it presents itself as an island of stability in a turbulent region that includes Sudan and Libya.

Egypt’s strategic hand also includes the Suez Canal, which is crucial to global trade, and liquefied natural gas facilities that send energy to Europe. And in a reflection of Egyptian recognition that American aid is not guaranteed, Egypt has managed to pit the United States against its rivals by seeking arms or trade deals with Russia and China.

Successive administrations in Washington have bought Egypt’s argument, approving all but $85 million of its $1.3 billion package this year. Although Egypt is not the only undemocratic state receiving American aid, the package has especially angered human rights advocates, members of Congress and other critics who question why the United States supports an authoritarian regime rife with corruption.

After the impeachment, critics urged Congress to hold off on further aid. About $300 million a year is subject to human rights conditions, and the Biden administration has released $235 million to Egypt this year.

Since President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took power in 2013 by deposing the first democratically elected leader, Egypt has arrested tens of thousands of activists, opposition politicians, researchers, journalists and other alleged political opponents, including some Egyptians whose only Apparent crime is re-Sharing posts on Facebook critical of the government. It has also muzzled the media and stifled all protests.

On a practical level, critics point that Egypt often spends aid on equipment that makes little sense for its security needs, which focus primarily on fighting scattered bands of radical Islamist insurgents in the North Sinai province near Israel. Much of the aid goes to air defense, large ships and fighter jets.

And despite receiving the second-largest amount of American military aid, after Israel, Cairo has an uneven relationship with Washington. Americans in Cairo who work with the Egyptian military describe the attitude of Egyptian officers toward their American counterparts as cautious at best. Egypt has also considered sending weapons to Russia for its war in Ukraine, leaked Pentagon documents show.

During the years when prosecutors say Menendez was doing favors for Egypt, other members of Congress clamored for more restrictions on military assistance, or for sections of it to be frozen, until Egypt improved its human rights record. .

By all appearances, Menéndez was one of those calling for change. He was one of the 17 senators who signed a 2018 letter pressing the Trump administration to raise “the erosion of political and human rights” in Egypt when el-Sisi visited Washington.

Egypt had reason to be concerned about his objections. As the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Menendez has the ability, shared only with three other members of Congress, to impede Washington’s arms sales.

Before approving arms sales to most countries, the State Department’s long-standing practice is to first informally notify the presidents and ranking members of the House and Senate panels that oversee foreign affairs. If those lawmakers do not approve the proposed transfers, the process stops until the administration addresses their concerns.

Menéndez has used this authority in recent years to block shipments of material to countries such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey on human rights grounds. But the prosecution indicates that Mr. Menéndez, despite making repeated statements and even presenting legislative proposals By denouncing Egypt for its human rights record, he was not using his power to force a reckoning over Egypt’s military aid.

Although other top Democrats and Republicans on the Senate committee also refused to block arms sales to Egypt, prosecutors maintain that Menendez did so because he was in Egypt’s pocket.

Egypt’s government has declined to comment.

The indictment lists several instances in which Menendez is said to have told his wife that he intended to approve the arms sale, information she then passed on to a friend, Wael Hana, an Egyptian-American businessman from New Jersey who He was the owner of a company. that he certified the meat halal and then passed that information on to Egyptian officials.

Hana rewarded the Menendezes with cash, gold and other bribes, prosecutors say. The deals also helped enrich him and served as a way for Cairo to get money to Menendez, according to the indictment.

In May 2019, Egypt awarded Mr. Hana’s company, IS EG Halal Certified, the multimillion-dollar business of certifying all meat imported from the United States into the country, even though he had no prior experience with halal meat, and although the United States Department of Agriculture argued that its monopoly would raise prices and disrupt the market.

One of the few remaining independent media outlets in Egypt, Mada Masr, has reported that IS EG Halal Certified worked together with a company linked to the Egyptian intelligence services. and a US government report at the time. found that the company’s monopoly increased the price of American beef liver in Egypt by 32.1 percent.

In another indication of Menendez’s importance to Egypt, the senator met with someone the indictment describes as a senior Egyptian intelligence official at a Washington hotel in June 2021, the day before the official met with other senators who were expected. emphasize human rights.

Menendez sent his wife an article outlining the expected questions, which she then forwarded to another Egyptian official, according to the indictment, adding in a message: “This way you can prepare your rebuttals.”

News reports from the time show that Abbas Kamel, Egypt’s intelligence chief, widely considered the country’s second most powerful man, was visiting washington that week, when he was scheduled to meet with members of Congress.

Two days after Menendez’s meeting with the top official, Hana, the Egyptian-American broker, went to buy 22 one-ounce gold bars, according to the indictment. Later, federal agents found them at the Menéndez home.

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