The Menendez Fiasco: Implications for US-Egyptian Relations

Washington has been abuzz lately over the shocking political intrigue involving the Egyptian government of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and the powerful former chairman of the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Robert Menendez. Details of the plot emerged on September 22, 2023, with the unsealing of court documents filed by the Southern District of New York US Attorney’s Office revealing that the incumbent Democratic senator from New Jersey has been indicted by a federal grand jury on several counts of corruption and abuse of his position, including the alleged receipt of lavish and sizable bribes from the government of Egypt or US citizens affiliated with it. The 39-page indictment charges Senator Menendez, his wife, Nadine Menendez (née Arslanian), and three New Jersey associates with conspiring to exchange political influence for cash and other gifts in order to benefit the interests of the Arab Republic of Egypt. News of the indictment forced the senator to relinquish his committee chair in the face of a crescendo of demands from fellow Democrats calling on him to resign his Senate seat altogether.

The Menendez affair is not by any means the first case of corruption associated with members of Congress; nor is it likely to be the last. But considering the high visibility and political stature that the senator enjoyed as chairman of the most powerful committee dealing with foreign policy, the incident is expected to have serious political implications at home and abroad. The damage sustained by the Democratic Party, particularly should the senator end up resigning, could have incalculable repercussions for its future control of the Senate, and for the hotly contested 2024 presidential elections. Beyond the media hype focusing on the unscrupulous details and brazen nature of the bribery scheme and its domestic implications, foreign policy analysts have joined the fray by raising serious questions about the immediate and long-term impacts of the indictment and its embarrassing revelations on the already precarious state of US-Egyptian bilateral relations, particularly in the halls of the US Senate.

Targeting Arms Sales to Egypt

Both Cairo and Washington characterize their bilateral relationship, on paper at least, as a close alliance based on a broad array of common interests, including regional security, economic cooperation, strategic military partnership, counterterrorism objectives, and other issues. However, what US diplomats at Foggy Bottom refer to as “a historically strong and growing partnership” is in fact a precarious and shaky alliance typical of other US “alliances of convenience” with authoritarian and military regimes throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Indeed, the annual $1.3 billion military aid package to Egypt, which, regionally speaking, is second only to that provided to Israel, has been the cause of continuous friction and objections in Congress. This congressional scrutiny must have motivated the Egyptian government and its domestic agents to engage in shady activities like providing cash bribes and gifts of gold, fancy cars, and mortgage payments to secure its aid package in full.

Ironically for Egypt, the opposite has occurred, and justifiably so. The Sisi regime has clearly shot itself in the foot through its adventuresome and unconventional influence-peddling efforts. The angry reaction on Capitol Hill to Cairo’s bold power play has been to rethink aid to Egypt and to target its most cherished aid package in Congress. Representative Gregory Meeks, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called on the State Department to “pause” at least a portion of US military aid to Egypt by linking it to human rights abuses. This defeats recent efforts by the Biden administration to help Egypt by invoking US national security considerations to waive human rights restrictions on $235 million in aid to Cairo. On the Senate side, Democratic Senator Christopher Murphy commented that, “There are serious implications for US policy towards Egypt if, as the indictment suggests, they were trying to use illicit means to curry favor on the committee.” Murphy concluded that the committee has “a responsibility to understand what Egypt was doing and what Egypt thought it was getting.” Simply put, by resorting to this amateurish and underhanded method to influence US policies, the proverbial chickens employed by the Egyptian intelligence services have come home to roost. This is the last thing the Sisi regime needed in Washington, as it will only harm its already faltering credibility.

Lessons for Arab Lobbying in Washington

The dictionary definition of lobbying, i.e., seeking to influence politicians and public officials to further your own economic, political, or other strategic interests, is a legitimate act within the American political system, and is subject to specific laws, rules, and procedures. There is absolutely no need to circumvent, subvert, or violate these norms. Engaging in such practices is a politically costly endeavor. All countries with diplomatic ties with the United States directly and indirectly lobby the government on a routine basis. Indeed, Arab countries—including Egypt—have participated in this process for decades by pursuing their national interests through their embassies, American business associates, and related ethnic communities, and have hired lobbying firms, which are abundant in Washington and elsewhere. Indeed, scores of such firms are currently employed—and well-compensated—by various Arab countries, including Egypt, to advance their interests.

Beyond the apparent violations of the law on the part of both the Senator and his Egyptian interlocutors, the Menendez fiasco reveals a careless and risky aspect of political culture prevalent among US allies in the Middle East that have in the past contributed to similar incidents of corruption and malfeasance. First, no American politician requires an expensive gift, cash or otherwise, to perform their responsibilities, whether at the White House or in Congress. What are normally viewed in the Arab world as gestures of hospitality and generosity are actually deemed legal violations in Washington. Under the Foreign Gifts and Decorations Act, federal government officials may not accept any gift whose value exceeds $480 from any foreign government or organization. Storage facilities at the National Archives, the State Department, and on Capitol Hill are full of pricy Arab gifts worth millions of dollars that law-abiding public officials could not legally keep. Arab governments must stop tempting US officials, their family members, and their “friends” with gold bars, ruby encrusted swords, gold chronographs, jeweled medallions and pendants, and the like. Officials simply cannot keep these items if they abide by the law.

Second, it is quite true that money is an omnipresent component of American politics. Indeed, bribery is often perceived as the grease that makes the squeaky wheels of politics turn. However, this is a very risky form of corruption to engage in as a foreign power, particularly when one is considered a US ally. If caught, as Menendez allegedly has been, the price is too high for any country to pay, including for those blessed with abundant resources that induce them to believe that they can get away with such palm-greasing. As has often been said, bribery corrupts both the giver and the receiver.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Flickr/NJ National Guard