US senator bribery charges worsen already tense ties with Egypt

2 Mons Ago
US senator bribery charges worsen already tense ties with Egypt

US Justice Department on Friday said an explosive indictment against Sen. Robert Menendez, an dominant New Jersey Democrat, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and his wife in what prosecutors described as a complex cash-for-influence arrangement.

A number of Egyptian officials from Egypt’s military and intelligence services are described by prosecutors as seeking information and influence in direct interactions with Menendez and his wife, or via their associates.

Allegations that a leading U.S. senator acted secretly to advance Egyptian interests in a bribery scheme have injected a new, combustible element into Washington’s relationship with Cairo, testing a partnership already strained by growing regional competition and friction over human rights.

Federal agents cited the discovery of gold bars and over $480,000 in cash hidden in Menendez’s New Jersey home, which they alleged were received from an Egyptian-American businessman and other associates in exchange for favors, some of which benefited the government of President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi.

Egypt has been one of one of the largest U.S. aid recipients including an annual 1.3 billion in military assistance.  Washington has long aided Cairo’s military regime, despite human rights concerns. Bribery allegations involving the powerful New Jersey senator could imperil that longstanding arrangement.

The allegations involving a historic foreign partner and one of the country’s most prominent figures on global affairs come at a sensitive moment in Washington’s relations with the Middle East, as the Biden administration seeks to refocus on China and Russia while also bolstering regional security and reassuring partners concerned about an American exit.

Critics of Egypt’s rights record said the government’s alleged attempt to secure covert influence must be met with a strong response. Seth Binder, an official at the Project on Middle East Democracy, said the charges raised “serious concerns” about Egyptian attempts to interfere in U.S. politics.

He called on Congress to block pending U.S. aid “in order to make crystal clear that al-Sisi’s human rights record and infiltrating the U.S. political system will not be tolerated.”

The Egyptian government and the Egyptian embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Among the charges in the indictment is an alleged arrangement in which Menendez promised to facilitate continued aid and arms sales to Cairo in exchange for his wife being put on the payroll of an Egyptian-American businessman, Wael Hana.

For Sisi, a former general who took power in a 2013 military coup, securing continued U.S. aid is critical. Egypt is in the throes of a major economic crisis, with record inflation fueling discontent as Sisi prepares to run for reelection in several months. Sisi and the military establishment hold vast sway over politics, governance and the economy — but soaring food prices and a wheat shortage sparked the revolution that toppled the last dictator’s government.

But rights groups say the measures, while welcome, are window dressing on a broader clamp down on government critics. Tens of thousands of “unjustly detained” prisoners remain behind bars, according to Human Rights Watch, and reports of torture abound. Arrests on political grounds have outpaced releases of political prisoners, the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, a Cairo-based human rights groups, told according to The Washington Post.

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