January 14, 2003 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 118

Egypt Rethinks Its Nuclear Program Part I: Scientific and Technological Capability Vs. International Commitments

January 14, 2003 | By Y. Feldner*
Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 118


For some time, there has been debate in the Egyptian and Arab media on the question of whether Egypt, and Arabs in general, should strive to develop nuclear programs and obtain nuclear weapons. Those participating in the discussion include Egyptian nuclear scientists, politicians, and clerics.

Israel's 1981 bombing of the Osirak nuclear facility in Iraq, and the decade-later U.S.-led international coalition effort to destroy Iraq's nuclear capability, had a formative effect on Egypt's nuclear doctrine in the late 20th century. Since 1990, Egypt has been pushing through diplomatic means for international supervision of Israel's nuclear facilities, while simultaneously developing means of conventional, chemical, and biological deterrence. Yet the international community's reaction to India's and Pakistan's nuclear testing in May 1998 – perceived by Egypt as lenient – gave Egyptian public figures, including Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, second thoughts .

At this moment, in Egypt and the entire Middle East, all eyes are upon the international community's attitude towards North Korea, which violated its nuclear commitments and recently declared that it was withdrawing from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). The initial Egyptian response, reflected in an editorial in the Egyptian government daily Al-Ahram, was that "the North Korea-U.S. crisis clearly proves that small and medium-sized countries are capable of steadfastness in the face of the pressures that desecrate their sovereignty from countries whose strength is greater – provided that these [small and medium-sized] countries use their domestic and regional resources wisely and skillfully… This crisis proves that the world has not yet become a single sphere of influence entirely subject to a single superpower, and that there is still ability to resist."[1]

Nuclear weapons are often perceived in Egypt as evidence of a country's regional and international standing. Another Al-Ahram editorial stated that it is not right for Israel to possess a nuclear arsenal while "other countries in the region dozens of times bigger and more important" do not.[2] Thus, other Middle Eastern countries' initiatives for developing nuclear programs, for example, the nuclear reactor that Russia announced it plans to build in Syria,[3] may encourage the Egyptian leadership to push the Egyptian nuclear program so as to maintain its leadership status in the region.

Egypt's Long-Standing Nuclear Policy

In theory, Egypt relinquished any intentions to develop a strategic nuclear capacity by joining the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Later, it also signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, though it has not yet ratified it. Furthermore, for years the call for nuclear disarmament in the Middle East has been a cornerstone of Egyptian diplomacy, as has the demand for supervision of Israeli nuclear installations. Statements made by heads of the Egyptian nuclear program during the 1990s show signs of despair at the death of their country's nuclear plans.

Nevertheless, among the flood of declarations regarding Egypt's commitment to refrain from developing strategic nuclear capacity, occasional conflicting statements have indicated that the Egyptian leadership has not closed the door on the atomic option altogether. The most prominent of these came from President Mubarak. In an interview with the London Arabic-language daily Al-Hayat in early October 1998, Mubarak said: "We do not think now of entering the nuclear club because we do not want war… We are not in a hurry. We have a nuclear reactor at Inshas, and we have very capable experts. If the time comes when we need nuclear weapons, we will not hesitate. I say 'if we need it,' because this is the last thing we are thinking about… Obtaining materials for nuclear weapons has become easy, and they can be purchased easily. India and Pakistan have carried out nuclear testing, and there is talk that Iran is next in line. Every country is preparing for itself a deterrent weapon that will preserve its integrity and its existence."[4]

About a year later, political advisor to President Mubarak Osama Al-Baz declared, "If the Arabs sense a threat from Israel, they can create their own parallel nuclear program, or they can develop their own chemical and biological weapons."[5] Also, Amru Moussa, currently Secretary General of the Arab League, while still serving as foreign minister and leading Egypt's international campaign for regional nuclear disarmament, said, "The Middle East cannot have one nuclear state. It may live with two nuclear states, but certainly not one."[6]

Scientific and Technological Capability Vs. International Commitments

There are three basic requirements for developing a strategic nuclear program: scientific/technological, economic capability, and political will. Nearly all the Egyptian experts who expressed their opinions on the matter agreed that Egypt possessed the scientific and technological capability to develop a strategic nuclear program; economic capability also exists, they said, although the economic feasibility of a nuclear program was in serious doubt. But all those who spoke stressed that as far as they knew, the political will required to push forward a nuclear program was lacking.

In discussing the nuclear issue, most of the Egyptian professionals stated that Egypt and the Arabs possessed the capability to develop a strategic nuclear program, and even nuclear weapons – provided that there was political will to do so. Dr. Fawzi Hussein Hamad, head of the Egyptian Atomic Energy Authority from 1990-1994, said, "In all conferences in which we have participated since May 1998 [when India and Pakistan carried out nuclear testing], we were asked why we are not producing nuclear weapons. Our answer was, of course, that we have decided on the matter by joining the treaty [NPT]… Among the Arabs there are all the scientific and technological qualifications [for developing a united Arab nuclear program]… but the truth is that this is not the problem; the fundamental problem is political will…"[7]

A book published by the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in 2001featured articles by Egypt's top nuclear scientists and portrayed Egypt's joining the NPT as "the worst blow for the Egyptian nuclear program." A book review posted on the Islam On Line website stated that after joining the NPT, "the Egyptian nuclear program was almost completely frozen, and for the first time in decades the nuclear aspect has disappeared from Egypt's energy policy, until 2017."[8]

Egyptian nuclear scientists stated unanimously that Egypt could not violate its commitment to the international community – particularly as it spoke, from every possible platform, in favor of nuclear disarmament in the Middle East. Dr. Sayyed Abd Al-Gawad 'Amara, head of the Nuclear Safety Center of the Egyptian Atomic Energy Authority, said: "The development of nuclear capability for purposes of warfare and not for purposes of peace is possible only if a political decision on the matter is made. We must ask ourselves whether we, at the beginning of the third millennium, are capable of diverting [nuclear] applications for peace into strategic [nuclear] applications. I think that the world system and its capability today do not permit this. What would have been permitted in the 1950s and the 1960s, when India, for example, built up its nuclear capability, is not permitted today."[9]

However, in a hypothetical exercise, some scientists hinted that if, in the future, the political will emerged, this commitment could be circumvented by focusing on the development of a general Arab nuclear program – which would also facilitate dealing with the anticipated international pressures. Dr. Ahmad Qaroun, an expert from the Egyptian Nuclear Substances Authority, said: "We are committed to the NPT, and stand by our word in this matter. But if we wanted to develop these capabilities, we have the human and financial cadres that will allow it. It is a top-level political decision made by the president of the state. Egypt in particular is unable to do anything because it joined the NPT and because it is calling for nuclear disarmament in the region. But if we wanted to do something, all Arab countries would have to join in… Thought of such weapons is still very distant, but the means exist and the material for nuclear bombs can be obtained abroad or produced locally, because in Egypt there are many uranium sites with not inconsiderable quantities that can be utilized. But the question is fundamentally political… In addition, beginning to produce nuclear weapons means entering into conflict with the superpowers. Look at the American sanctions on India. This must be taken into account, in addition to the tremendous outlay required. Another condition is the unification of the Arab countries – something I think is difficult, since we haven't even managed to set up a common economic market due to Arab disagreements."[10]

Nuclear Reactors for Electricity – A Platform for Nuclear Weapons Production

A central question regarding Egypt's nuclear intentions concerns the establishment of large nuclear reactors for producing electricity, which will give Egypt technological capabilities that can be diverted for other purposes. Egypt has refrained from building such reactors because, it says, they are not economically necessary. Following the Chernobyl disaster, it added the claim that nuclear reactors are unsafe. Thus, for example, President Mubarak declared in late April 2001, "There is no thought at the present time to establish nuclear power stations for producing electricity, because we have great quantities of energy and natural gas reserves that increase from year to year, and because Egyptian public opinion does not welcome the establishment of such stations."[11]

However, in contrast with Mubarak's statement, about a year later Egypt's Electricity Minister Hassan Younis told the Egyptian Parliamentary Industrial Committee that a decision had been made to establish a nuclear power station for electricity in 2010, and that its construction would take eight years.[12]In late June 2002, the electricity minister stated that the plan to build a nuclear power station in Al-Dhab'a, west of Alexandria, was still on the agenda.[13] In an interview with the Egyptian opposition weekly Al-Usbu' the minister said, "Egypt has the full right to obtain nuclear technology for peaceful purposes" and that "a large nuclear station for energy will be built at Al-Dhab'a, to produce electricity, in 2010-2012."[14]

The minister's statements were significant because a large nuclear station for producing electricity is considered a possible platform for developing strategic nuclear capability. Professor Mustafa 'Alawi explained: "Egypt made a gross strategic miscalculation when it chose to ratify the NPT in 1981… Today, Egypt should certainly pursue a peaceful nuclear option, because such capabilities can be transformed to perform non-peaceful ends in a very short time."[15]

Some Egyptian nuclear scientists emphasized the military potential in their struggle to revive Egypt's nuclear program. Dr. 'Izat 'Abd Al-'Aziz from the Egyptian Nuclear Safety Authority said: "Egypt has not managed to establish strategic nuclear capability because we were not allowed to build large nuclear reactors for electricity production. The construction of such reactors constitutes a nuclear strategy in itself, because it brings us into the so-called nuclear fuel circle and gives us expertise in this area."[16]

Dr. 'Ali Al-Sukari of the Egyptian Nuclear Energy Authority cited Japan as an example of an "economic superpower without nuclear bombs or a plan to use nuclear bombs, but which, if it wanted to obtain nuclear weapons, could do so tomorrow."[17]

However, Munir Mujahed, in charge of feasibility studies at the Egyptian Nuclear Reactor Authority, wrote: "A political decision to revive the Egyptian nuclear program, in light of the above and other challenges, will be similar to President Al-Nasser's decision to nationalize the Suez Canal. It will revive the spirit and the feelings of national pride which would provide the basis of popular support for the development plans and the sacrifices that may be required… Besides nuclear power's potential role in mobilization and modernization, its role in enhancing Egyptian national security should not be neglected… The introduction of nuclear power plants could help counterbalance this threat [i.e. Israel]… Under certain conditions, [mastery of] nuclear technology can facilitate the production of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons can always be developed when there is a political will."[18] Al-Ahram Weekly, which published the article, added a disclaimer at the bottom: "The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the Authority's policy."

The words of the Electricity Minister were enthusiastically received in Egyptian atomic circles. Dr. Abdallah Hilal, from the Egyptian Atomic Energy Authority, told the Islam On Line website: "This news [about the establishment of a nuclear power station] is most important, and is a huge leap [forward] in nuclear research, for Egypt and for its atomic energy, so that we can stand on [our own] two feet. In Egypt, there is an explosion among the scientific cadres in the nuclear sphere – they have no work. The two existing Egyptian nuclear reactors in the Inshas region are sufficient for training Egyptian scientists in experiments, but not in the aspects of application. A large nuclear power station will allow application [work] of great importance in the area of nuclear energy… Egypt is classified internationally as a country capable of producing nuclear weapons within a short time if it wants to do so, if it has the means of training, and if it makes a political decision to do so."[19]

*Yotam Feldner is MEMRI's Director of Media Analysis

[1] Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 13, 2003.

[2] Al-Ahram (Egypt), October 22, 1998.

[3] Al-Hayat (London), January 15, 2003.

[4] Al-Hayat (London), October 5, 1998.

[5] Al-Ahram (Egypt), August 16, 1999.

[6] Al-Ahram Weekly (Egypt), November 18, 1999.

[7], May 8, 2000.

[8] , May 12, 2001.

[9] Al-Bayan (UAE), June 14, 1998.

[10] Al-Bayan (UAE), June 14, 1998.

[11] , August 7, 2002.

[12] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), April 30, 2002.

[13] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), June 30, 2002.

[14] Al-Usbu' (Egypt), May 27, 2002.

[15] Al-Ahram Weekly (Egypt), January 18, 2001.

[16] Al-Bayan (UAE), June 14, 1998.

[17] Al-Bayan (UAE), June 14, 1998.

[18] Al-Ahram Weekly (Egypt), June 4, 1998.

[19], August 7, 2002.

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