Menendez Bribery Scandal: Egypt versus Ethiopia
Why did Menendez ignore Egypt’s human rights record and attack Ethiopia’s?
Federal investigators caught New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez and his wife Nadine with $180,000 worth of gold bars, $550,000 in cash, plus furniture and a $60,000 Mercedes Benz that they didn’t pay for. The US Attorney for the Southern District of New York alleges that these were bribes from three New Jersey businessmen and co-defendants, and that one of them, Egyptian American businessman Wael Hana, also paid $23,000 to bring Nadine Menendez’s mortgage current and promised to put her on the payroll of his corporation for a “low-show-or-no-show” job.
Senator Menendez nevertheless claims that he is being persecuted because he’s Latino, and vows to run for re-election next year despite a chorus of Democrats calling on him to step down, especially given their razor-thin Senate margin.
Most press are reporting Menendez’s efforts on behalf of Egypt in its rivalry with Ethiopia over Nile waters and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) , but without mentioning that Menendez disregarded Egypt’s horrific human rights record while attacking Ethiopia’s. In March 2022, Menendez even went so far as to announce that he was pressing Biden for a “genocide determination ” against Ethiopian officials.
Such “determinations” have been used to justify ICC indictments and “interventions,” including the US/NATO bombing war that destroyed Libya and its Great Manmade River . The US sanctioned Ethiopia during its 2020-2022 civil war, and should it have gone so far as to bomb the country—as many Ethiopians feared it would—the GERD would have been an obvious target. So Menendez was courting disaster.
U.S. v. Menendez et al.
The grand jury in U.S. v. Menendez et al . charged that, between 2018 and 2022, Wael Hana, Jose Uribe, and Fred Daibes collectively paid all the confiscated bribes in exchange for Senator Menendez agreeing to use his power and influence to protect and enrich them and to benefit the Government of Egypt, which Hana was close to.
Of particular note are Menendez’s efforts to secure arms sales and aid for Egypt despite their authoritarian government and its human rights record.
The State Department’s own 2021 report on human rights practices in Egypt cited:
“Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by the government or its agents, and by terrorist groups; forced disappearance by state security; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by the government; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary detention; political prisoners or detainees; politically motivated reprisals against individuals located in another country; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious abuses in a conflict, including reportedly enforced disappearances, abductions, physical abuses, and extrajudicial killings; serious restrictions on free expression and media, including arrests or prosecutions of journalists, censorship, site blocking, and the abuse of criminal libel laws . . . ”
That’s just for starters, and the report goes so far as to say that “the [Egyptian] military’s continuing home demolitions and forced evictions during the armed conflict in North Sinai were abuses of international humanitarian law and likely amounted to war crimes.”
Prior to 2018, the year Menendez was elected and joined the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Egypt had faced resistance in obtaining foreign military financing and foreign military sales, despite its key strategic relationship with the US and Israel. In August 2017, the State Department announced that it was withholding $195 million in foreign military financing until Egypt could demonstrate improvements on human rights and democracy, and was canceling an additional $65.7 million in foreign military financing.
After multiple US Senators raised human rights or rule-of-law objections to foreign military financing for Egypt, no foreign military sales of offensive military equipment that required congressional notification had been concluded since March 2016.
That radically changed once Menendez was on the powerful committee. The details are in the indictment, which reads, “At all times relevant to this Indictment, MENENDEZ held a leadership position on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (the ‘SFRC’), first as the Ranking Member and then the Chairman, and therefore possessed influence over, among other things, the Executive Branch’s decisions to provide foreign military sales, foreign military financing, and other aid or support to or for the benefit of the Government of Egypt.”
Nadine Menendez, according to the indictment, had a close, long-standing relationship with Wael Hana—the Egyptian American businessman who paid her mortgage and promised to put her on his payroll—and he maintained close ties to Egyptian officials. In November 2019, a court-authorized search of Hana’s cell phone revealed thousands of text messages between the two of them, many of which Nadine Menendez deleted from her own cell phone.
Positive news about arms sales, financing, and aid were conveyed to Egypt after more than one dinner between Menendez and Egyptian officials arranged by Hana.
The Egyptian/Ethiopian struggle over Nile waters
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, on the Abay River, is the largest dam in Africa and the seventh largest in the world. Construction is finished and the final filling was completed this year.
The Abay River is also known as the Blue Nile; it joins the White Nile when it flows across Ethiopia’s eastern border into Sudan and then Egypt. Egypt, which claims that a 1929 treaty with Britain granted all the Nile waters to them, has been at loggerheads with Ethiopia over the dam since its inception. Ethiopia says that the dam will not reduce water flows to Sudan and Egypt and will in fact help prevent floods, but the three parties—most of all Egypt and Ethiopia—have not been able to reach water-sharing agreements despite countless negotiations brokered by the African Union.
In 2020, Egypt sought help from Senator Menendez via Nadine Menendez and their friend Wael Hana, asking them to urge Washington to become more involved in negotiations about the dam.
U.S. v. Mendendez reads:
“In or about March 2020, NADINE MENENDEZ texted Egyptian Official- 3, ‘anytime you need anything you have my number and we will make everything happen.’ A few days later she arranged for MENENDEZ to meet with Egyptian Official-3, whom NADINE MENENDEZ referred to as ‘the general,’ regarding negotiations between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan over a dam on the Nile River being built by Ethiopia, known as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (the “Dam”), which was generally regarded as one of the most important foreign policy issues for Egypt. Within one month, in or about April 2020, MENENDEZ wrote a letter to the then-Secretary of the Treasury and the then-Secretary of State regarding the Dam, beginning the letter, ‘I am writing to express my concern about the stalled negotiations between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan over [the Dam],’ and stating, ‘I therefore urge you to significantly increase the State Department’s engagement on negotiations surrounding the [Dam].’”
The indictment doesn’t allege any demonstrable connection, but seven months later, then President Trump famously threatened that Egypt might blow up Ethiopia’s dam .
Menendez claims concern about human rights in Ethiopia
Despite lobbying to set Egypt’s horrific human rights crimes aside and continue arms sales, arms sales financing, and aid, Menendez claimed concern about human rights in Ethiopia during its 2020-2022 civil war. On November 4, 2021, he introduced Senate bill 3199, the Ethiopia Peace and Stabilization Act , which, had it passed, would have imposed sanctions even harsher than those already in place, not only on the Ethiopian government, but also on the entire Ethiopian population. The bill is largely forgotten for now, but it’s still on the shelf in Congress, where it could be brought to a vote any time.
The Menendez indictment doesn’t suggest any connection between the Senator’s introduction of the sanctions bill and his corrupt advocacy for Egypt versus Ethiopia regarding the GERD, but the investigation is still underway and the FBI, in its press release , requests any tips as soon as possible.
Ann Garrison is a Black Agenda Report Contributing Editor based in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2014, she received the Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza Democracy and Peace Prize for her reporting on conflict in the African Great Lakes region. She can be reached at ann(at)anngarrison.com.