Written by Dr. Shaul Shay
BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 182, September 13, 2012
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Though Egypt does not currently have a nuclear energy program, that reality could soon change. Newly elected President Mohammed Mursi made clear that Egypt wishes to create a civilian nuclear energy program. Also of concern are statements made by leaders of Mursi’s party, the Muslim Brotherhood, who call for Egypt to pursue a nuclear weapons program. It is presently unclear whether the new president is sincere about his desire for peaceful nuclear energy or if he concurs with his ideological brethren.
Egypt does not currently possess a nuclear energy program, one that could potentially be diverted for weapons purposes. Several factors can be attributed for this reality, including previous leadership priorities, supplier-based constraints, financial difficulties, and safety concerns. Egypt is a member of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and is the leading proponent of establishing a nuclear weapons-free Middle East. This policy, however, may be changing. Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi recently told a group of Egyptian expatriates living in China that “Cairo is considering renewing the Egyptian nuclear program, which will be purely for civilian purposes, to provide clean energy to the citizens of Egypt.” During that trip, Mursi requested $3 billion from the Chinese to build “power plants.”
This apparent change in intentions is based upon a July 2012 report of the Egyptian Ministry of Electricity and Energy that argues for the creation of a nuclear program. The report states that Egypt’s increasing demand for electricity, requiring an additional 300 megawatts annually, cannot be met under the current system. In addition, the drop in both traditional sources of energy and employment opportunities means that Egypt should pursue the more economically feasible alternative of nuclear energy. The project incorporated specifications following the disaster at the nuclear reactor in Fukushima, Japan in March 2011.
The report says that the nuclear plant in Al Dabaa, on the Mediterranean coastline, will be the first of four nuclear power plants around the country. Under the plan, Al Dabaa will become operational in 2019 and will create jobs, giving the area a needed economic boost. The last nuclear plant would become operational by 2025. While Mursi has not yet announced his decision on whether to proceed with the project, a number of international companies from Canada, China, France, Russia, South Korea, and the US have already expressed interest in bidding for them.
Although Mursi renewed Egypt’s long-standing call for a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East at the recent Non-Aligned Movement conference in Tehran, the Muslim Brotherhood, his party, has called on Egypt to develop a nuclear weapons program since 2005. In that year’s parliamentary elections, the Brotherhood called upon the government to develop Egypt’s “special national programs,” including nuclear and armaments programs.
By 2006, members of the Muslim Brotherhood began advocating for a nuclear weapons program. Dr. Hamdi Hassan, a Muslim Brotherhood spokesperson, stated that Egyptians “are ready to starve” to obtain a nuclear weapon. Similarly, Saad Al Husseyni, another Muslim Brotherhood representative, suggested that Egypt develop a “strong and deterrent military power,” arguing that developing nuclear weapons would be more effective in protecting Egypt than promoting a nuclear weapons-free zone. In 2009, Muslim Brotherhood MP Dr. Ibrahim Al-Ja’afari called for the militarization of Egypt’s nuclear program to confront the military aspirations of various regional countries. In an appeal to Egypt’s Defense and National Security Committee, he explained that Egypt must pursue the acquisition of nuclear weapons, in light of the accelerated arming of Israel and Iran.
Also in 2009, global Brotherhood leader Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradhawi said that Muslim nations must possess nuclear weapons “in order to strike terror in our enemies.” He also called on Muslims to “punish” the Jews, as Hitler had done in the Holocaust. It was in February 2011 that Al-Qaradhawi was invited by the Muslim Brotherhood to lead the victory celebration for Egypt’s revolution at Tahrir Square. It is still unclear whether the statements of Brotherhood leaders like Al-Qaradhawi are personal views or if they reflect the position of the organization and President Mursi.
The growing need for energy is not the only motivation behind Egypt’s interest in a nuclear power program. Egypt sees itself as the leader of the Arab world; therefore a decision to pursue nuclear energy serves political purposes domestically as well as internationally. Undoubtedly, Iran’s nuclear activities could elicit a regional nuclear race, as Tehran’s traditional rivals in the Middle East —Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, and the Persian Gulf states — could counter the Iranian threat with nuclear programs of their own.
The call for nuclear weapons has been voiced by other prominent Egyptians, even those not affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. For example, retired general Abd Al-Hamid Umran recently called on Egypt to obtain nuclear weapons to deter Israel. “An Egyptian nuclear program – let’s call it peaceful for the sake of argument – is about uranium enrichment,” he said. Taking such an action would create global opposition but would “prevent anyone from insolently attacking us.”
If Egypt were to decide to develop nuclear weapons it would not be starting from zero. Past nuclear endeavors have left them with an experienced group of physicists and engineers and a number of universities capable of training a new generation of nuclear scientists. Yet, despite possessing a relatively advanced capability in nuclear technology, Egypt is many years away from the ability to produce nuclear weapons if it chose to do so. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that “Israel doesn’t see Egypt working toward a military nuclear program.” Barak said problems arose when a country used its civilian nuclear program to mask nuclear military work, but he doesn’t think the Egyptians are trying to deceive the international community. Thus, it remains to be seen whether the new Egypt will change the nuclear policy of the old regime.
Col. (res.) Dr. Shaul Shay is former Deputy Head of the Israel National Security Council and a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. He lectures at Bar-Ilan University and the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center.
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