Egypt's Nuclear Dimension

This article was co-authored with Ploughshares Fund Research Assistant Reid Pauly

As a free Egypt transforms itself, analysts are nervously watching for signs of new nuclear ambitions. Concern revolves around three issues:

  • There are unanswered questions about Egypt's past nuclear activities.
  • Egypt has the know-how and networks necessary to ramp up its civilian nuclear power program.
  • Egypt plays a central role in the global non-proliferation regime and is key to agreement to rid the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction.

Before he became a special advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Robert Einhorn analyzed Egypt's history in The Nuclear Tipping Point: Why States Reconsider Their Nuclear Choices: "Considering the factors that have historically motivated countries to acquire nuclear weapons, one might assume that Egypt would be a likely candidate."

Egypt has a nuclear and conventionally superior neighbor, Israel, with whom it has fought territorial wars. The military is well-respected in Egyptian culture (as evidenced by the smooth transition of power from Mubarak to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces). The state has trained many nuclear scientists and has a long history of nuclear research. And, as a leader of the Arab world, Egypt wants to play a prominent role in world affairs. As Einhorn observed, these are some of the tell-tale signs of nuclear ambitions. Unanswered Questions

In 2005, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) issued a report chastising Egypt for not disclosing a number of atomic research activities over the years. Just last year, the IAEA again launched an inquiry into the origin of highly enriched uranium particles that were detected at Egyptian research facilities in 2007 and 2008. Cairo has claimed that it had "differing interpretations" from the IAEA. But the concerns remain, especially in light of Egypt's refusal to sign the Additional Protocol -- allowing for tougher inspections -- until Israel accepts IAEA safeguards. Why has Egypt never come clean about the full scope of its nuclear activities and experimentation?

Also troubling is Egypt's past chemical and biological weapons programs. Egypt used chemical weapons during the Yemen Civil War, making it one of a handful of states to have ever used them in wartime. Whatever chemical weapons it still may have are likely rusty in storage, more of an environmental danger than a military one. And there is no evidence that Egypt every constructed biological weapons, though intelligence agencies suspected research was conducted. Still, Egypt has never signed the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) or the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which it always links rhetorically to Israel's undisclosed nuclear weapons capabilities.

Chasing Nuclear Technology

Egyptian pursuit of nuclear technologies spans the political spectrum. The nuclear industry lobby, populist politicians distrusting Israel, Islamic fundamentalists with political ambitions, and parts of the military have flirted with nuclear weapons acquisition in the past.

In 1984, Defense Minister Abdel Halim Abu Ghazala sought President Mubarak's approval to begin a nuclear weapons program. Mubarak rebuffed him, but Ghazala began looking into nuclear material supply routes anyway and communicated with Iraqi officials about potential nuclear cooperation. When Mubarak found out, he fired Ghazala.

WikiLeaks cables contained unconfirmed reports of Cairo turning down black-market offers of nuclear technology from former Soviet states in the early 1990s. In more recent days, however, the Muslim Brotherhood has called for Egypt to develop a nuclear capability that could balance the threat posed by Israel. Mubarak kept a lid on Egyptian nuclear ambitions, but they never entirely disappeared.

Recently, Egypt has begun to accelerate its civilian atomic energy program, calling for international bids to construct the first of four planned nuclear reactors. Though permitted under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), this could get tricky. The Obama administration has recently weakened its stand on countries' nuclear programs. After convincing the United Arab Emirates to voluntarily forswear any uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing capabilities (that could be used for nuclear fuel or nuclear bombs) as part of the nuclear cooperation deal struck with the United States, the administration has abandoned that principle. In negotiations for nuclear trade deals with Vietnam, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, U.S. officials have put state-to-state relations and business interests above national security. They have abandoned these "gold standard" safeguards supported by proliferation experts. If Egypt goes ahead with nuclear power plans now, it could insist on the right to get these dual-use technologies, complicating a nascent regional nuclear technology race.

Global Leadership

More positively, Egyptians have played a central role in the creation and strengthening of the global non-proliferation regime. Mohamed ElBaradei, now a prominent political opposition figure in Egypt, was Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from 1997 to 2009. Egypt was also an early supporter of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and some Egyptians, particularly Mohamed Shaker, were instrumental in its negotiation and early implementation.

Egypt has made the creation of a Middle East Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) a central goal of its foreign policy. At the NPT Review Conference in 2010, agreement was reached only after all 187 nations agreed to the Egyptian-championed plan for a 2012 conference on the creation of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East.

While all Middle Eastern nations have committed to participate, much work remains to be done to ensure that the 2012 conference is fruitful. Even before Mubarak fell, David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, feared that failure to make progress "could be a catalyst for [the Egyptians] to leave the NPT." This would be a disaster, as many nations have long followed Egypt's lead on these issues.


Overall, nuclear watchdogs have cause for concern. Egypt has played a central role in the creation of the global non-proliferation regime and will continue to be an important U.S. ally in the pursuit of a world without nuclear weapons. As Einhorn concluded in his study:

Egyptian leaders seem to have reached the conclusion years ago that a nuclear weapons capability would undermine higher national priorities, especially peace and stability in the region, economic development, and close ties with the United States.

It would take a major change in circumstances to get Egypt to alter its long-standing posture, including the combination of a serious external threat and a substantial change in the composition and orientation of Egypt's leadership.

This, however, is exactly the situation we now confront, with the advance of an Iranian nuclear program and a peaceful revolution that has transformed the core of Egyptian politics. In the months and years ahead, the United States must ensure that Egypt's dormant nuclear ambitions stay that way.