Michael KreponEgypt, the Spoiler?

Bob Einhorn has a pretty good track record of prognosticating proliferation. Let’s hope it continues, at least with respect to Egypt.

Before going back into the State Department, Bob wrote a chapter on Egypt in The Nuclear Tipping Point, Why States Reconsider Their Nuclear Choices, which he co-edited with Kurt Campbell and Mitchell Reiss. In this book, published six years ago, Bob makes a strong argument that Cairo has boxed itself into a corner by ratifying the NPT and by giving up on nuclear power plants in the 1980s.

While a substantial number of Egyptians are dissatisfied with the nuclear status quo, almost no one expects the situation to change.

Egypt has been talking, on and off, for forty years about purchasing a large nuclear power plant, but has yet to do so.

In retrospect, Chernobyl marked the end of any serious Egyptian pursuit of nuclear power.”

This is not how Egypt has been acting since Bob wrote this essay. The more Iran pursues nuclear capabilities, the more Cairo rails against Israel’s Bomb. In diplomacy, as in sports, this is known as a misdirection play: The nuclear threat posed to Egypt by Israel, with whom it signed a peace treaty in 1979, hasn’t changed. The big change in Egypt’s neighborhood has been attempts by Iraq, Libya, Iran and Syria to acquire capabilities to make nuclear weapons.

The Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference has now opened in New York. Cairo holds the key to its success or failure. Egypt is in a position to play the spoiler’s role because it chairs both the 118-nation Non-Aligned Movement and the New Agenda Coalition — a group of eight influential states, including Brazil and South Africa. Egypt has given notice that it seeks to mount a campaign at the month-long conference to pressure Israel, a non-party to the Treaty, to cap and reverse its nuclear program.

Cairo has a legitimate beef. When the NPT was extended indefinitely in 1995, member states endorsed a resolution championed by Egypt calling for practical, progressive steps to establish an effectively verifiable zone free of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems in the Middle East. Israel has been a free-rider to the NPT, enjoying the constraints the Treaty imposes on others while remaining an outlier. Israel could reinforce the NPT’s objectives and purposes by ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and declaring a moratorium on fissile material production, but it has done neither.

Iran and Venezuela will make a ruckus at the review conference, but they cannot define its success or failure. If, on the other hand, Egypt becomes a ringleader, lining up Arab states to hold the NPT hostage to the behavior of a non-member state, the conference can end poorly. A weakened NPT would then provide more latitude for Iran’s nuclear ambitions and increase hedging strategies elsewhere in the Middle East.

What game will Egypt play? Cairo has a serious security dilemma. It signed the NPT in 1968 and finally ratified the treaty in 1981. Later in the 1980s, it appeared to give up on having a civil nuclear power program. Cairo said little after the discovery of an advanced nuclear program in Iraq and boxed centrifuge parts in Libya. Egypt was part of what the Egyptian newspaper, Al-Ahram, called this the “synchronized silence of the Arab world” following Israel’s bombing of the covert Syrian nuclear facility in September, 2007. (During Nasser’s rule, Egypt and Syria forged a short-lived federation. For Syria to seek the Bomb while Egypt’s nuclear options were closed must have been especially galling to Cairo.) Egypt tellingly abstained during the November, 2009 vote on Iranian noncompliance at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Board of Governors. Meanwhile, other neighbors, including Algeria, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel began to move forward with plans for nuclear power plants.

The more Cairo bites its tongue about troubling developments in the Muslim world, the more it amplifies its concerns about Israel’s nuclear program. Egypt is taking precautionary steps to deal with its security dilemma. Gamal Mubarak, the President’s son and heir apparent, gave a speech in September, 2006 calling for the construction of nuclear power plants:

The whole world — I don’t want to say all, but many developing countries — have proposed and started to execute the issue of alternative energy… It is time for Egypt to put forth, and the party will put forth, this proposal for discussion about its future energy policies, the issue of alternative energy, including nuclear energy, as one of the alternatives.

Egypt has experimented with fissile material in questionable ways. A February, 2005 report by the IAEA cited Egypt for failing to disclose nuclear facilities, material, and experiments related to producing plutonium and enriched uranium. The IAEA characterized these activities as “a matter of concern.” Cairo cooperated with the IAEA investigation, explaining that it and the Agency had “differing interpretations” of Egypt’s safeguards obligations, while affirming that Egypt’s “nuclear activities are strictly for peaceful purposes.” Egypt is modernizing its ballistic missile programs. It has refused to accept more stringent inspections of nuclear facilities as a “matter of principle,” explaining that it will only undertake greater responsibilities when Israel does so.

When asked on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on April 12th whether Egypt might feel that it must develop its own nuclear weapons, Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit replied, “We will not announce ourselves on that possibility now.” Misdirection plays can work smartly, or they can backfire badly. An ugly outcome at the NPT review conference would increase nuclear dangers in the Arab world and beyond, but blaming Israel for this state of affairs would also widen Egypt’s nuclear options.


  1. Azr@el (History)

    This article begs the question; what is the ideal? What ideal end goal can potentially be spoiled by a sands and sandals pro-western dictatorship such as Egypt? Is that ideal a world bereft of nuclear weapons? Obviously not, since the author seems to suggest that Israeli possession of nuclear arms seems to pose no spoiler effect. The problem is not that even that Egypt may acquire nuclear arms since the author discounts that possibility. Rather, the author feels that Egypt making too much noise about Israel having nuclear arms outside of the NPT may weaken international(Read US+EU+constellation of client states)efforts to drag the DPRK back into the NPT and keep the IRI from bolting from the pact.

    The UNSC may keep nukes, all other nations may not save for Israel, India and Pakistan. As long as this antiquated world view lingers on the NPT is doomed to fail, this year, or five years from now, it doesn’t really matter. Taiwan and South Korea were in far more precarious positions than Israel finds itself now and yet the US leaned on them heavily not to go nuclear with great success. The US congress should grow a pair, lay off the Bibble thumper/evango-Zionism moonshine, remember that their first responsibility is to maintain the imploding post ww2 war framework and extend the Taiwan-ROK treatment to Tel Aviv. As far as India and Pakistan goes, we should offer them a simple bargain; the first to verifiable disarm should gain economic aid and a security blanket, the other wins trade sanctions and our enmity.

    The longer we hold off cracking the whip the crappier our cards get. I fear they may be too much institutional momentum in the US to snap out of delusions such as held by the author and effect a rational course of action. Perhaps it’s all for the best; we are after all leaving behind an unmanageable world of nuclear armed regional powers for the PRC to inherent when they shove aside.

  2. William deB. Mills (History)

    At the moment, Cairo and Tehran are singing the same tune – that a non-nuclear Mideast would be good and that Israel is the obstacle. Israel is the obstacle at the moment, but Iran is getting closer every day to becoming a second obstacle, and the U.S. continues to block any solution both by preventing discussion of Israeli nuclear behavior and by continuing the one-sided neo-con policy of pressuring Iran rather than sincerely trying to find a mutual accommodation (which would entail accepting Iran’s emergence as a regional power challenging Israeli pre-eminence). That’s the first layer of the Mideast political onion.

    Your blog very nicely reviews the next layer, where Cairo, “methinks, doth protest too much” by suddenly discovering Israel’s long-standing nuclear monopoly in the context of Iran’s rise. I think you have a point – Cairo’s policy of supporting Israeli repression of Gaza gives the lie to its calls for pressuring nuclear rogue Israel. So Cairo seems, if I read you correctly, to be playing a tricky game of supporting Tehran for the moment but for ultimately hostile purposes.

    A third layer of the onion is being peeled back a bit at the NPT review conference. Ahmadinejad scored some direct hits. Americans may sleep through them all, but the rest of the world is likely to be listening. For example, in his speech, he fairly questioned “whether granting extraordinary authority in the IAEA to the nuclear weapon States and entrusting them with the critical issue of nuclear disarmament is appropriate.” Meanwhile, the immature behavior of the American delegation in walking out and the hypocritical expression of interest in a nuclear-free Mideast but only after resolving the Palestinian issue (what does that have to do with nuclear arms???) only underscored the pathetic nature of American nuclear diplomacy, at least as it appears publicly. The third layer, to get to the point, amounts to this: as Cairo now publicly criticizes Israel and echoes Tehran’s position and Ahmadinejad comes across as the moderate, does this build any real momentum in the non-Western world (e.g., Ankara, Brazilia, Tokyo, Beijing, Moscow and on the Muslim street as well) toward stronger support of Tehran?

    And there are surely more layers, which I have no faith that any official organization will contemplate with an open mind because they all require the violation of too many political taboos. Given both the intrinsic importance of nuclear proliferation and the ways it intersects with the Western confrontation with activist Islam, the importance of thinking this through seems obvious…but how? Workshops take money. If there is serious interest in actively participating, I would be willing to set up a wiki to facilitate a dialogue. Wikis have their limits, but at least it’s a start…and free. Reactions?

  3. Lysander (History)

    “The nuclear threat posed to Egypt by Israel, with whom it signed a peace treaty in 1979, hasn’t changed.”

    I beg to differ. Twenty years ago, it would have been hard to imagine the recent war on Gaza happening (although, admittedly, Egypt’s dictatorship was/is a co-conspirator.) It would have been hard to imagine an Israeli government as radical as this one, with members openly advocating ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. That’s a change in my book.

    “The big change in Egypt’s neighborhood has been attempts by Iraq, Libya, Iran and Syria to acquire capabilities to make nuclear weapons.”

    Yes, but not in the way you think. Iran has resisted western pressure and successfully developed a nuclear program. Mubarak’s constituents will ask him, “why can’t Egypt do the same?”

  4. hass (History)

    The suggestion that Israel is being ‘blamed’ as if it is without fault is ridiculous, as is the assumption that Iran is “seeking nuclear weapons.” Even if Israel and Egypt have signed a peace treaty, that doesn’t mean that Egypt doesn’t have legitimate concerns about Israel’s real, actual, existing nuclear weapons next door, rather than the non-existent and hypothetical Iranian nuclear weapons.

  5. FSB

    Let’s not conflate access to nuclear fuel cycle with a nuclear weapons program.

    In this respect, the UNSC or other nations do not have the right to force zero enrichment on NPT members — that is an abrogation of the NPT. They can only try to force compliance.

    They may well fail if they insist on calling some nations “spoliers” while taking other non-NPT members under their wing: India and Israel come to mind. And after the recent China-Pak deal we can add Pakistan to the list.

    Let’s be clear who are the real spoilers: US, China, India, Israel and Pakistan.

  6. bradley laing (History)

    ISLAMABAD – Pakistan successfully test-fired two ballistic missiles Saturday capable of carrying nuclear warheads, the military said.

    The Shaheen-1 missile has a range of about 400 miles (650 kilometers), while the second Ghaznavi missile could hit targets at a distance of 180 miles (290 kilometers), an army statement said. Both can carry conventional and nuclear warheads.

  7. sewa mobil di surabaya (History)

    thanks for the info and explanation provided

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