Key takeaways from the Menendez-Egypt corruption case
On Friday, federal prosecutors in New York announced sweeping corruption charges against Robert Menendez, the Democratic senator from New Jersey who chairs the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
A 39-page indictment previously viewed by Middle East Eye reads like a novel bringing together gritty real estate developers and Middle Eastern spymasters. There are gold bars stashed in a suburban New Jersey home (13 to be exact), fleeting references to "the general" and a start-up Halal meat distributor with links to Egyptian intelligence.
At the centre of the saga is Menendez and his second wife, Nadine.
Throughout their courtship and marriage, prosecutors allege the couple carried out a years-long scheme to enrich themselves by trading sensitive US government information and facilitating military aid to the government of Egypt.
Menendez has towered over US foreign policy since he first became chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2013, losing the position only when Republicans controlled the Senate. He has taken a particular interest in the Middle East, positioning himself as a champion of democracy.
He has advocated for countries like Greece and Armenia, along with the US's Kurdish allies in northern Syria. He has been a vocal critic of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and, at times, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.
On multiple occasions, he has denounced Egypt over its poor human rights record, but the federal indictment unveiled against him on Friday suggests he was working behind the scenes to carefully guard arms sales to Egypt.
Charges against Robert Menendez
Menendez and his wife have been charged with conspiracy to commit bribery, conspiracy to commit honest services fraud and conspiracy to commit extortion.
Charged along with the couple are Wael Hana, the founder of a halal meat company with alleged links to high-level Egyptian military and intelligence professionals; Fred Daibes, a Palestinian-American real estate developer whose business interests extend all the way to members of the Qatari royal family; and Jose Uribe, a former New Jersey insurance agent with a background in trucking.
The defendants have denied the charges against them.
At a press conference on Monday, Menendez cast a defiant tone, insisting he had done nothing wrong and there had been a "rush to judgment".
"The allegations leveled against me are just that: allegations," he said. "The court of public opinion is no substitute for our revered justice system."
Prosecutors allege that starting in early 2018, Menendez used his position on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to influence military aid and financing to Egypt, a longtime US ally that has come under fire from some lawmakers for its poor human rights record.
The scheme started when Nadine, Menendez's then-unemployed girlfriend introduced him to her long-time friend Wael Hana, who facilitated meetings between Menendez and Egyptian officials in order ensure that military aid to Cairo continued unhindered. In return, Menendez secured "a low-or-no-show job" for Nadine in Wael's company.
According to prosecutors that was just the start.
Over the next four years, Menendez and his wife would allegedly reap huge financial benefits from the corrupt scheme according to the indictment.
A search of the Menendez home in 2022 last summer revealed $480,000 in cash, much of it stuffed into envelopes and in clothing, closets and a safe with some of the envelopes baring the fingerprints of Daibes, one of the defendants.
'I have withdrawn thousands of dollars from my personal savings account... because of the history of my family facing confiscation in Cuba'
- Senator Robert Menendez
Gold bars worth around $100,000 were also discovered in the house. After returning from a trip to Egypt in October 2021 Menendez reportedly googled "how much is one kilo of gold worth".
At the press conference on Monday, Menendez chalked up the cash in his home to his Cuban roots.
"For 30 years, I have withdrawn thousands of dollars in cash from my personal savings account, which I have kept for emergencies, and because of the history of my family facing confiscation in Cuba," Menendez said on Monday.
“Now this may seem old-fashioned, but these were monies drawn from my personal savings account based on the income that I have lawfully derived over those 30 years."
A $60,000 Mercedes-Benz convertible gifted to Nadine was also found parked in the Menendez garage. According to prosecutors Menendez also obtained expensive exercise machines and an air purifier as part of the scheme.
'More powerful than Egypt's president'
In the indictment, Nadine comes across as boasting about Menendez's power to her Egyptian contacts.
In one incident, prosecutors cite a March 2020 text message from Nadine to an Egyptian official where she wrote: "anytime you need anything you have my number and we will make everything happen." She later claimed that she could make Wael Hana "more powerful than the president of Egypt".
Prosecutors say Hana's company IS EG Halal was a vehicle for bribe money to be distributed to Menendez and his wife.
In 2019, the government of Egypt awarded the New Jersey startup exclusive control over the certification of halal food exports from the US to Egypt.
When the US Department of Agriculture became concerned about the monopoly's impact on rising costs for other US meat suppliers, prosecutors say Menendez attempted to pressure regulators to stop interfering. The prosecutors say the USDA official didn't comply with the demand.
In May 2018, Menendez obtained unclassified but "highly sensitive" information from the State Department on the number and nationality of persons serving at the US embassy in Cairo, among other details.
The US senator then allegedly texted the information to his then-girlfriend, under the title "FYI". Nadine forwarded the information to Hana, who forwarded it to an Egyptian official.
"Although this information was not classified, it was deemed highly sensitive because it could pose significant operational security concerns if disclosed to a foreign government or if made public," the prosecutor said.
In another act, prosecutors say that Menendez ghost-wrote a letter on behalf of the Egyptian government seeking to convince US senators to release a hold on $300m in aid to Egypt.
Rendezvous with a spy chief?
In June 2021, Egypt was looking to push back against critics of its human rights record in Washington.
US President Joe Biden had entered office pledging no more "blank checks for Trump's favorite dictator" in reference to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
A short but bloody Israeli attack on the besieged Gaza Strip in May 2021 gave Cairo a chance to trumpet its traditional role as a mediator between Palestinian fighters and Israel.
The Biden administration expressed its "sincere gratitude" to Sisi's government for helping broker a truce, but it was still debating whether to withhold a portion of Washington's annual military aid to Egypt that Congress had conditioned on human rights concerns.
Against this background, Cairo dispatched its intelligence chief, Abbas Kamel, to Washington. Kamel has played a key role in dealing with some of Cairo's most sensitive files, meeting with the likes of the rogue general, Khalifa Haftar, in Libya and Ali Mamlouk, Syria's notorious intelligence chief.
Kamel's visit coincided with a meeting that US prosecutors claim Menendez held with a senior Egyptian intelligence official at a hotel in Washington DC just before the official was scheduled to meet with other senators to discuss Egypt's human rights record.
According to text messages viewed by prosecutors, Menendez sent his wife an article that outlined questions the official would be expected to face from fellow senators on Egypt's human rights record.
Nadine forwarded the article to another unnamed Egyptian official, adding: "I just thought it would be better to know ahead of time what is being talked about and this way you can prepare your rebuttals."
After the hotel meeting, Hana allegedly purchased 22 one-ounce bars of gold bullion for Menendez, two of which were found in the 2022 search of the Menendez home.
A key partner
Egypt has been a key Middle Eastern partner for the US going back to the 1970s when President Anwar Sadat decided to establish diplomatic ties with Israel.
Following the tumultuous years of US-Egyptian relations under President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Sadat's Egypt was also viewed as a bulwark against communist expansion. Military aid was one way to keep it in the Western bloc and since then Egypt has received about $1.3bn in assistance each year.
The defence relationship has outlived the Cold War.
Egypt is the most populous country in the Arab world and home to the Suez Canal, through which 13 percent of global trade passes. Its strategic location on the Mediterranean means it is not only a partner in counterterrorism, but crucial to stemming migration from Africa and the Middle East to Europe.
In recent years, however, military assistance to Egypt has come in the crosshairs of some lawmakers because of the country's poor human rights record.
Egypt is ruled by Sisi, who came to power after a 2013 military coup ousted the country's first democratically elected government.
Sisi has overseen a sweeping crackdown on dissent that analysts say pales in comparison to anything witnessed under Egypt's former military rulers. His government has jailed nearly 60,000 political prisoners and the US State Department has documented cases of extrajudicial killings, torture and forced disappearances.
In September, the Biden administration announced it would withhold $85m - out of the $1.3bn in annual US military aid provided to Cairo - over human rights concerns.