Should We Be Preparing for a Nuclear Egypt?

Jun 20, 2012


By Nathan Donohue

Since the 2011 protests in Egypt’s Tahrir Square led to the ouster of then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the future of Egyptian foreign and national policy has remained ambiguous at best, including the future of Egyptian nuclear policy. In the interim, there have been multiple forces in Egypt vying for power, the forefront of which includes the Armed Forces of Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood, both of which fielded candidates for the recent national election. Although the results will not be confirmed until Thursday, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi has already claimed victory in the election by a margin of roughly five percent. In lead-up to this election, Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces issued a Constitutional Declaration limiting the ability of the president to affect or implement military related policy. Nonetheless, if the election results are confirmed, then there could be a definitive change in Egyptian policies, including Egypt’s current policy on the acquisition of nuclear weapons.
Egypt has had a civilian nuclear program since 1954 acquiring their first reactor from the Soviet Union in 1961. During that time Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser reportedly explored developing nuclear weapons in an effort to not only have parity with Israel but also to promote Egypt as a leader in the Arab world. However, following the death of President Nasser, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat committed Egypt to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968. Since that time there has been little evidence of Egypt trying to pursue nuclear weapons.
Notwithstanding, Egypt has continued its civilian nuclear program. In 1993 Egypt began construction of a 22 MW reactor designated the ETRR-2 with the aid of the Argentinian company Investigacion Aplicada (INVAP). The reactor achieved criticality in 1997. As it stands, the Egyptian nuclear program includes two research reactors as well as uranium mining, milling, and fuel fabrication, in addition to the Hot Laboratory and Waste Management Centre (HLWMC) which is capable of small-scale plutonium extraction. Though not as robust as other nuclear programs, Egypt maintains an advanced program with a long history of experience.   
The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood has caused a great deal of international tension in their bid for power in Egypt, specifically because of their desire to create an Islamic state within Egypt. However, their past rhetoric surrounding the acquisition of nuclear weapons also gives cause for pause. In the 2005 Egyptian parliamentary elections, the Muslim Brotherhood was able to control one fifth of the seats in Egypt’s National Assembly promising to develop Egypt’s “special national programs,” including Egypt’s nuclear program and armaments program.
By 2006, members of the Muslim Brotherhood had begun calling for more than just a civilian nuclear program; they were also advocating for the development of an Egyptian nuclear deterrent. In July 2006, Dr. Hamdi Hassan, a spokesperson of the Muslim Brotherhood parliamentary caucus, stated that 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.” Similarly, Saad Al Husseyni, another Muslim Brotherhood representative, advocated that Egypt develop a “strong and deterrent military power,” arguing that developing nuclear weapons would be more effective in protecting Egypt than developing a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone. More recently in 2009, Muslim Brotherhood leader Sheikh Al-Qaradhawi gave a sermon which aired on Qatar TV stating that Muslim nations must possess nuclear weapons “in order to strike terror in our enemies.” Each of these statements is a point of concern in the context of a rising Muslim Brotherhood within Egypt’s governing power.
For Egypt and its new government nuclear weapons could be sought for many reasons. Nuclear weapons could offer security against nuclear neighbors such as Israel, particularly if the long peace between Israel and Egypt begins to come in conflict with the agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood. Nuclear weapons could be pursued to counter the threat posed by a nuclear Iran, particularly in the context of a Sunni run Egypt vs. a Shia run Iran, both of which wanting to exert regional influence. At the same time, nuclear weapons could also function to ward off the intervention of outside countries that may not be hospitable to a ruling government trying to create an Islamic state.
If Egypt were to decide to develop nuclear weapons they would not be starting from zero. Their past nuclear endeavors have left them with an experienced group of physicists and engineers coupled with a large number of universities capable of training a new generation of nuclear scientists. In addition they maintain a number of facilities essential to developing a proliferation pathway.
Egypt also has experience with plutonium separation. The largest of Egypt’s research reactors, the ETTR-2, can reportedly produce 6 kg of plutonium annually, enough for one bomb’s worth of fissile material each year. Utilizing their hot cells at the HLWMC, Egypt also has the domestic capacity to extract plutonium from spent fuel. In addition, Egypt has the Hydrometallurgy Pilot Plant (HPP), a facility which was operated for decades unbeknownst to the IAEA, although it is a hot cell complex designed to conduct experiments involving the separation of plutonium. In fact, the IAEA previously questioned Egypt over traces of nuclear material found in environmental samples taken at these hot cells prompting an IAEA report which concluded that "the repeated failures by Egypt to report nuclear material and facilities to the Agency in a timely manner are a matter of concern." All of these capabilities exist in a country that, although a party to the NPT, has not signed the Additional Protocol giving access to the IAEA to monitor undeclared facilities. Accordingly, the IAEA remains beholden to the information that the Egyptian government chooses to report to them. 
It is also important to consider that Egypt has maintained a highly developed weapons production capacity for decades, beginning with an early missile agreement with Germany in the 1960’s. Since that time Egypt has developed a number of different missile systems and acquired considerable missile-related technology. According to an unclassified Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) report in 2001, Egypt has had a long standing relationship with North Korea regarding ballistic missile technology. This means that if the new Egyptian government were to pursue nuclear weapons, that Egypt not only has the ability to extract weapons grade plutonium for use in a nuclear weapon, but that they may also have the ability to develop an effective means of delivery. Though these two steps do not compromise all of the steps necessary in developing an effective nuclear deterrent, both of these steps are still essential.  
With that being said, there has been no clear indication that Egypt is considering developing nuclear weapons. Statements by a handful of Muslim Brotherhood members cannot be expected to represent the position of the organization as a whole. Other representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood such as presidential candidate Mohammed Morsi have not advocated for developing nuclear weapons. More importantly, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has not occurred in a political vacuum and there are other political forces in play which will be a major component of any of Egypt’s future policies. As aforementioned, Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has already taken steps to limit the power of the Egyptian presidency, and for the time being, the Armed Forces of Egypt still control the lion’s share of authority within Egypt and have given no indication of wanting to abandon Egypt’s current international obligations.
Nonetheless, given the current political turmoil in Egypt and previous statements made by members of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as Egypt’s current security and geopolitical position, it is paramount that we consider whether the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt might lead to the possibility of Egypt pursuing nuclear weapons. Concurrently, the IAEA and its international partners should continue to push the Egyptian government to sign the Additional Protocol allowing access to undeclared facilities, further assuaging the fears surrounding a possible nuclear program.

Nathan Donohue is a research intern for the Project on Nuclear Issues. The views expressed above are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Center for Strategic and International Studies or the Project on Nuclear Issues.