'Just a blip?': Questions swirl over Egypt's role in Menendez case as US ties jolted
Egypt’s notorious mukhabarat, or intelligence services, crashed awkwardly onto America’s domestic doorstep on 22 September.
Prosecutors charged Democratic Senator Robert Menendez with corruption for taking hundreds of thousands of dollars and gold in exchange for his influence over military aid and "highly sensitive" government information to Egypt.
The 39-page indictment is replete with secret hotel room meetings, encrypted messages and references to an unknown military "general".
Notably, the indictment documents two secret meetings between Menendez and Egyptian intelligence officials in Washington, one of which coincided with a visit by Abbas Kamel, chief of the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate, to Washington.
Former US intelligence and defence officials tell MEE that the report reads like a classic case of spy games.
“I would say it looks like an intelligence operation, one that quite frankly did not use good tradecraft to cover its actions,” a former US senior intelligence officer told Middle East Eye on condition of anonymity.
“Raw cash, gold bars, no plausible deniability as to why they would be giving these things to a sitting senator, just says they are very bad at this, desperate, or viewed him [Menendez] as disposable,” he added.
'Egypt's crown jewel'
After one of his earliest interactions with Wael Hana, an Egyptian-American businessman who prosecutors say has ties to Egyptian intelligence, Menendez obtained un-classified but “highly sensitive” information from the State Department on the number and nationality of persons serving at the US embassy in Cairo, Egypt. The information was transmitted back to an Egyptian official.
But experts tell Middle East Eye that Menendez's greatest value as an asset to the Egyptians would be due to his position as the top-ranking Democratic on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
'Going after a sitting US senator is hitting the red zone'
- Abbas Dahouk, former senior military advisor to US State Department
As a matter of longstanding practice, the State Department notifies the chairs and ranking members of the Senate and House foreign relations committees before proceeding with arms transfers. Menendez was one of only four US lawmakers who could, at will, block arms.
It's a trump card the New Jersey senator has never been shy to play. Last year, he threatened to put a hold on arms sales to Saudi Arabia after it cut oil production, and he has repeatedly stated he won’t sign off on the sale of F-16s to Turkey.
“Menendez is the crown jewel for Egypt,” Abbas Dahouk, a former senior military advisor to the State Department who previously served as Washington’s defence attache to Saudi Arabia, told MEE. “When it comes to lawmakers approving foreign aid, you can’t get any higher.”
Menendez and all four codefendants, including Wael Hana, have pleaded not guilty to the corruption charges.
No Egyptian officials have been charged, but on Wednesday, NBC reported that the FBI was conducting a counter-intelligence investigation into the role of Egyptian intelligence.
Spy games are a way of life in the Middle East, Dahouk told MEE.
“Intelligence operations are always there below the surface in our bilateral ties. We (the US) do the same thing. We try to collect information and influence policies, it's tolerated, but going after a sitting US senator on US soil, that is hitting the red zone," he said.
The amateur manner in which Egypt’s intelligence is portrayed in the indictment is bound to be noticed by rich Gulf powers, whose suave ambassadors and sunglass-wearing security chiefs are masters at working rooms in Washington.
'The Americans will try to get some leverage out of this, but Biden doesn’t have any interest in exploiting it publicly'
- Robert Springborg, Egypt expert
“If you are a Gulf Arab leader watching this, you have to be thinking: ‘What a bunch of idiots these guys are',” Robert Springborg, an Egyptian expert at the Italian Institute of International Affairs, told MEE.
“The incompetence is glaring. It’s going to be hard for Egypt’s professional military and intelligence officers to live this down. They see all of this."
Egypt's embassy in Washington did not respond to MEE's request for comment.
The indictment against Menendez comes at a particularly sensitive time for President Abdel Fattah-el Sisi, the former general who has ruled Egypt with an iron grip since coming to power after his 2013 military coup toppled the first democratically elected government.
Sisi, a former defence minister and US-trained general, has portrayed himself as a steady hand, adept at managing national security matters and avoiding drama.
But Egypt is in the midst of a deep economic crisis. Sisi's government, which once prided itself on being a bastion of stability, oversees the highest influx of illegal migrants to Europe. Meanwhile, Gulf powers that once provided him with financial backing have tightened the purse strings.
On Monday, Egypt moved up the presidential elections to 10-12 December, originally due to take place in 2024. Sisi is widely expected to win a third term.
Of course, Egypt had good reason to want to influence Menendez.
For more than 40 years, the US has sent the Arab world's most populous country about $1.3bn in US military aid annually, the second highest of any state after Israel.
While countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE pay for their US military hardware, Egypt relies on aid as part of a programme called Foreign Military Financing (FMF).
The assistance dates back to 1978, when President Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel, making Egypt a linchpin in the US security umbrella. Bringing Egypt to their side was a major coup for Washington during the Cold War and after the tumultuous years of bilateral relations under President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
That aid started to come under scrutiny after 2013 when Sisi came to power in a military coup that ousted the country's first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi. The following year, Congress made a portion of the aid subject to human rights concerns.
While Menendez publicly denounced Egypt on multiple occasions for its poor human rights record, the indictment paints a picture of a US lawmaker working under the radar to guarantee the steady flow of weapons to Cairo.
According to the indictment, Menedez would often communicate his decisions on aid to Nadine, his girlfriend at the time and now his wife. After Menendez approved a multimillion-dollar weapons transfer to Egypt, he informed Nadine, who passed the message along to Hana. An Egyptian official replied to the news with a thumbs-up emoji.
Tanks and F-16s
Despite some calls from lawmakers to curtail aid over Egypt's poor human rights record, US administrations on both sides of the political aisle have kept ushering it through.
While the "war on terror" has ebbed, Washington continues to see Egypt as a strategic partner, perched on the Mediterranean and home to the Suez Canal, through which at least 12 percent of global trade passes.
Egypt has a web of interests in several regional hotspots along its borders, including Libya, an oil-rich country divided between two rival governments, the besieged Gaza Strip, and Sudan, where two warring generals are engaged in a bloody power struggle.
Keeping Egypt dependent on US arms is also a way to limit the influence of Washington's foes, China and Russia, who have pursued their own arms deals with Cairo, experts tell MEE.
“Ideally, all those interoperable M-1 Abrams tanks, F-16s and attack helicopters sitting in Egypt can be used by the US in the region or even in the Far East on short order if we need to,” Dahouk told MEE. “If Egypt buys Russian stuff, we are frozen out.”
The war in Ukraine has stretched that reasoning. Egypt reportedly rebuffed US requests to send spare ammunition to Ukraine, even as Sisi secretly planned to supply Russia with 40,000 rockets, leaked US intelligence revealed.
But the US has doubled down on the military partnership, betting that a suspension of aid could damage ties with a country Washington still views as a strategic partner.
In September, the Biden administration announced it would withhold just $85m in aid - out of $1.3bn - to Cairo.
The same month, US and Egyptian militaries held one of their largest exercises in recent years, with 1,500 US troops participating in the Bright Star military exercises.
Now, critics of Egypt have latched on to the indictment to press their case for curtailing the defence relationship.
Is Egypt bulletproof?
Democratic Congressman Don Beyer, who heads the Egypt Human Rights Caucus, said Cairo had been caught “conducting an espionage operation within the US Senate” in an interview with CNN, as he urged the administration to withhold aid.
Democratic Senator Chris Murphy told reporters on Tuesday that aid to Cairo should be paused.
But experts tell MEE that Cairo may be able to withstand the crisis, because while congressional critics of Egypt are vocal, they are few.
“Egypt has strong bipartisan congressional support because it was the first Israeli peace partner,” said Douglass Silliman, president of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, DC, and a former US ambassador to Iraq and Kuwait.
“That doesn’t make Egypt bulletproof, but it helps them weather storms.”
Meanwhile, the Biden administration, Sisi’s government and even Democratic lawmakers may be aligned in keeping a lid on the allegations as the US approaches an election year, experts tell MEE.
A telling example is that no lawmakers - even critics of Egypt - have called for the Department of Justice to release the names of the Egyptian officials involved in the corruption case.
'Biden doesn’t have any interest in exploiting this publicly'
- Robert Springborg, Egypt expert
Human rights activists and lawmakers called for the release of the intelligence report on the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. President Biden’s decision to make the report public sent ties with Riyadh plummeting.
In a separate incident, Italian prosecutors named the Egyptian officials and tried them in absentia after an Italian national was killed on Egyptian soil.
Pressed on the indictment last week, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said he had no comment, saying it was an “active and ongoing legal matter”.
“Both governments have decided to be very careful about what they say,” Springborg told MEE. “The Americans will try to get some leverage out of this privately with Egypt, but Biden doesn’t have any interest in exploiting it publicly.”
If military aid comes out of this unscathed, Cairo might even be able to take solace in the fact that their defence ties endured the Menendez indictment and a reported counter-intelligence investigation.
“This is a blip as opposed to a major detriment to bilateral US-Egyptian relations,” Jonathan Lord, head of the Middle East security programme at the Center for a New American Security, told MEE.
“The stakes are too high for both countries. Egypt and the US will continue to work together.”