“We [Egyptians] are ready to starve in order to own a nuclear weapon that will represent a real deterrent and will be decisive in the Arab-Israeli conflict.” — Dr. Hamdi Hassan, Spokesman, Muslim Brotherhood Parliamentary Caucus, 2006
When Egypt’s first civilian, democratically elected dictator, Mohamed Mursi became his country’s first head of state to visit Iran since its own Islamic revolution in 1979 for the annual meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) on August 30, the two leaders might have gone beyond the scheduled turnover of NAM’s leadership from Mursi to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran: they most probably discussed Egypt’s quietly reviving drive to acquire nuclear power — possibly including nuclear weapons — and how Iran might be of help.
Since taking office on June 30, Mursi has reportedly offered to renew diplomatic relations with Tehran, severed for more than three decades — but then repeatedly denied that he had planned to do so. His visit for the NAM conference, however, along with his sudden recent proposal to set up a committee of four nations including Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to try to end the fighting in Syria, and Egypt’s refusal to inspect an Iranian ship passing through the Suez Canal en route to Syria, all indicate that Cairo’s relations with Tehran are improving dynamically. Meanwhile, in advance of Mursi’s arrival, Iran was said to have offered to assist Egypt in developing a nuclear program.
Almost completely overlooked in Mursi’s warp-speed takeover of total state power in Egypt since his election victory, was that on July 8, the Ministry of Electricity and Energy (MoEE) handed him a feasibility study for the creation of a nuclear power plant at El-Dabaa in the Delta — possibly the first of four nuclear power plants around the country, the last of which would be brought online by 2025, according to a plan announced by MoEE in spring 2011. (Under the plan, El-Debaa would reach criticality—become operational–in 2019.) While Mursi has not yet announced his decision on whether to proceed with the projects, a number of international companies from Canada, China, France, Russia, South Korea and the U.S. have expressed interest in the bidding for them. In his trip to Beijing just prior to heading for Tehran, Mursi requested $3 billion for “power plants” from the Chinese, according to the geostrategic analysis firm Stratfor. Meanwhile, the website israelhayom.com reported on August 30 that the previous day Mursi had told a group of Egyptian expatriates living in China that he was considering the revival of Egypt’s nuclear power program. Now comes the possibility that Iran will transfer its nuclear capabilities to Egypt. As Stephen Manual reported from Tehran on August 26 for the website allvoices.com:
“Mansour Haqiqatpour, a member [vice-chairman] of the country’s Committee on National Security and Foreign Policy, told the state-run television station, Press TV, that Iran also plans to invite heads of states to visit the country’s nuclear facilities on sidelines of NAM summit. The purpose of the visit is to counter the propaganda unleashed by Western countries that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. He said that Iran was ready to share experience and expertise on nuclear facilities with Egypt and there was no harm in it. One can easily infer from the statement of Haqiqatpour that Iran is indirectly urging Egypt to go for the nuclear technology.“
Iran later denied that it had invited any foreign heads of state to visit any of its nuclear sites during the NAM conference—but not, apparently, the offer to assist Egypt’s nuclear program. Although in Tehran Mursi also renewed Egypt’s long-standing call for a Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone in the Middle East, since at least 2006 the Muslim Brotherhood (MB, in which Mursi served as a major leader before his election) has called for Egypt to develop its own nuclear deterrent. This view is so popular that in an interview on the Cairo channel ON-TV, on August 21, 2011, a retired Egyptian army general, Abdul-Hamid Umran said that it was “absolutely necessary” for the nation’s security to have “a nuclear program.” By this, he made clear, he did not mean a purely civilian program to produce electric power, to which Egypt is technically entitled as a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). He said, rather, that Egypt should declare the program’s peaceful purposes, and then systematically fool the international inspectors to achieve the needed levels of uranium enrichment to manufacture bombs — citing Iran as an example of how this can be done, and providing detailed steps to accomplish it. In another interview (for Egypt’s Tahrir-TV) on August 6, 2012, Umran again demanded that Egypt develop its own nuclear weapons, stressing that if Israel finds itself in a “difficult situation,” it would use its own nuclear shield: in that instance, Egypt must also have one to defend itself. The unmistakable implication is that Egypt would need nuclear weapons against Israel’s expected atomic retaliation in the event that Egypt went to war against the Jewish State.
Given the MB’s extreme hostility to Israel, its anti-Semitic and anti-Western ideology, and its recent, apparently complete takeover of the military and the rest of state power in Egypt, the possibilities raised are deeply unsettling. While none of this is conclusive, it definitely points to questions that have long been overlooked or too-easily dismissed in the debates about nuclear proliferation in a region that may soon explode in military conflict over Iran.
However it turns out, a review of the history and capabilities — past, present and future — of Egypt’s 58-year nuclear program will quickly reveal why approval of the El-Dabaa plant could signal the rise of a whole new level of danger in the already fraught Middle East, following the Islamist Spring.
FROM PEACEFUL ATOMS, TO PURSUING WEAPONS, TO THE WMDFZ
“Next to Israel and Iran, Egypt has one of the most advanced nuclear programmes in the region,” writes Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, in a background paper for a July 2011 EU seminar on Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) in the Middle East. Yet Egypt’s nuclear progress has aroused shockingly little attention beyond the arcane world of WMD specialists and anti-proliferation activists in recent years.
It all began with seeming innocence. Responding to U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s December 1953 “Atoms for Peace” speech at the U.N., Egyptian President Gamal Abdel-Nasser did not wait long to bring his country into the atomic age. Despite the American instigation, Egypt’s first (2MW) research reactor, the ETRR-1, was built by the Soviets at Inshas in the Delta between 1954 and 1961. Next came a larger (22.5MW) open pool research reactor (installed by Argentina), dubbed ETRR-2. This light water reactor, capable of producing 6 kgs of plutonium (enough for one nuclear weapon) per year, started construction in the early 1990s, achieving criticality in 1998. According to its website, the Egyptian Atomic Energy Authority (EAEA) now has a truly impressive wealth of expert personnel, with over 1,400 trained scientists, 2,300 technical staff, and roughly 1,300 in support staff as well. The EAEA lists its current activities as “research and technological projects,” “radiation protection and safety,” “society services activities” and “regional and international cooperation.”
Egypt’s drive for nuclear capability seriously accelerated when in December 1960, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion revealed that his country was building a nuclear reactor (started with help from France in 1957), ostensibly for civilian purposes, at Dimona. Henceforth the open, primary goal of Egypt’s program was to produce atomic weapons. (No doubt this inspired the American musical satirist Tom Lehrer to write, “Egypt’s gonna get one too / Just to use on you know who,” in his anti-proliferation song, “Who’s Next?”) Not enough funds were committed (nor probably available), however, to reach that objective prior to the devastating Arab defeat by Israel in 1967. In the aftermath, with no money left to invest in the effort, Egypt signed the NPT in 1968. Soon many of its nuclear scientists left the country; many moved to Canada, others to Iraq to work on the ominous nuclear program there.
In 1974, Egypt and the Shah’s Iran jointly launched an initiative for a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (NWFZ) in the Middle East: in 1975, as noted by a recent study entitled, “Egypt’s Nuclear Weapons Program,” and posted on its website by the Federation of American Scientists:
The US promised to provide Egypt with eight nuclear power plants and the necessary cooperation agreements were signed. The plan was subject to a trilateral safeguards agreement signed by the United States, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and Egypt. In the late 1970s, the US unilaterally revised the bilateral agreements and introduced new conditions that were unacceptable to the Egyptian government.
With the signing of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty in 1979, Egypt’s emphasis apparently shifted to the creation of nuclear power to produce electricity instead of bombs. Egypt did not ratify the NPT until 1981, the same year that (again working with the United States, which brokered and guaranteed the peace treaty) President Anwar al-Sadat decided to build a reactor on the Mediterranean coast at El-Dabaa, about 120 kilometers west of Alexandria.
Eventually, however, Egypt’s economy—weakened for decades by the lingering socialism installed by President Gamal Abdel-Nasser (despite liberal reforms under his successor, Anwar al-Sadat, and greatly expanded by his successor, Hosni Mubarak), and the Arab boycott of Egypt over its peace accords with Israel—could not sustain nuclear ambitions. The 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine also depressed enthusiasm for nuclear initiatives. As its program languished in near-limbo, in 1990 Egypt called for the creation of a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone (WMDFZ) in the Middle East, aimed primarily at pressing Israel to accept nuclear inspections, sign the NPT, and abandon its presumed nuclear arsenal. All the while, Egypt maintained a policy, which continues until today, of studied ambiguity regarding its own intentions.
In1995, Egypt would only sign an extension of its expiring NPT agreement when the U.S., Great Britain and Russia agreed to push for the WMDFZ, with a proviso for pressure on Israel to join. Yet, due to the alleged non-universality of the NPT (as explained in an August 2012 profile of Egypt’s nuclear program published by the reputable arms control organization, Nuclear Threat Initiative, or NTI):
Egypt has therefore refused to sign the IAEA Additional Protocol and the Chemical Weapons Convention, and to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the African Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone (the Pelindaba Treaty), and the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention.
It is revealing that Egypt continued to nurture clandestinely what seem to have been more dangerous nuclear desires. In 2004, the IAEA discovered traces of highly-enriched uranium (HEU) at Egypt’s facilities, and in 2005 it determined that Egypt’s nuclear authority had not disclosed either the import of uranium and or irradiation experiments that had taken place from 1990 to 2003. (The items found suggested at least the possibility of a secret uranium enrichment program that could be used to produce weapons.) Subsequently, the IAEA’s then-director, Mohamed ElBaradei — the Egyptian lawyer who won the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize — did not take action against Egypt for its covert behavior, which the agency treated as minor.
The IAEA found still more traces of highly-enriched uranium from unreported activity at Inshas in 2007 and 2008. That discovery prompted Pierre Goldschmidt of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to write in 2009, “One should remember that the HEU particles found in Iran originated from illicit nuclear trade with Pakistan and were connected with unreported uranium enrichment activities.” Again, although it issued a one-page report on the matter in 2008, and kept the investigation open, the agency took no further action.
By 2007, after considerable public promotion of the nuclear energy alternative by his regime, Mubarak said that Egypt would build four nuclear power plants around the country. Then in August 2010, the IAEA approved the El-Dabaa site for the first of these reactors. Little, however, had been done by the time of the uprising against Mubarak launched on January 25, 2011.
Soon after Mubarak’s fall on February 11, 2011, the MoEE, then operating under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the military junta that ruled Egypt after his departure, said that four of the power stations would be built, beginning with a 1,200MW light-water reactor at the El-Dabaa site. In spite of this, the plan was quickly frozen during the chaotic, catastrophically cash-poor transition, and as part of the worldwide reaction to the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe that followed the earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011 off the coasts of Japan. In addition, in January 2012, in a show of local resistance, mobs of protesters, demanding that the plant be relocated away from the area, attacked the construction site; at the same time, “radioactive materials” were stolen from the property. Then, on June 19, 2012, just before the final count of ballots for the second round of the presidential election, the project was tentatively approved again. Nonetheless, no known further action to implement it has been taken so far (although the nti.org analysis assumes it will proceed).
AN ASTONISHING CONSENSUS
All that is really lacking now is the money—and for Mursi to make public his decision.
But an astonishing consensus of media, government policy and expert opinion holds that, with tourism and investment at dismal lows, and vital foreign reserves rapidly nearing zero, Mursi will not choose to spend the large sums needed on the El-Dabaa plant. (The estimated cost of the four plants in the MoEE plan is $1.5 billion). Even with pledges of several billion dollars from Saudi Arabia and Qatar; a potential IMF loan ranging from $3.2 billion-to-$4.8 billion, and U.S. aid possibly to increase greatly beyond its current annual $1.5 billion in (mainly military), unless China accepts Mursi’s $3 billion request, supposedly Egypt is so impaired economically that it simply cannot afford the dubious luxury of nuclear pretentions.
Yet that argument downplays or ignores Egypt’s growing shortages of electricity. Even in Mubarak’s waning years, the grid was spiraling outward too fast to avoid blackouts, which have only grown more frequent, long-lasting and unpredictable, especially in Greater Cairo, in the disorder since his fall. Nuclear power, at least theoretically, could end that chronic shortfall completely. It has now emerged, moreover, in a deal that has almost entirely escaped the media’s attention, that Egypt is expecting to take delivery of two Class 209 diesel-electric submarines from Germany, over Israel’s vigorous objections.
Furthermore, pragmatic economic reasoning—integral to that consensus–might assume that Mursi is a normal leader, leading a normal political party, with a normal concern for the welfare of his nation’s citizens. Unfortunately, based on the behavior of other Islamist regimes — from Hamas to Hizbullah, the Taliban, al-Shabaab and even Iran, as well as the MB’s own historic goals and ideology — none of that applies to Mursi, or to the people behind him. About them, the consensus has been astonishingly wrong.