Egypt and the WMDFZ in the Middle East

Hadir Mamdouh*

A NWFZ for the Middle East and North Africa was first formally proposed by Egypt in 1974, with backing from Iran, in the form of a joint resolution to the UN General Assembly (UNGA). Until recently, Egypt had been the most active advocate of the Middle East WMDFZ since its inception. Egypt’s refusal to take part in further discussions regarding regional security unless the issue were put on the agenda contributed to the breakdown of the 1992–95 ACRS talks.[1] Less than a year later, Egypt campaigned heavily on behalf of the Arab group states to secure the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East as a precondition for their vote on the indefinite extension of the NPT. Egypt also made less successful attempts at strong-arming international forums to move the process forward.[2]

The official reason for Egypt’s active support of the Middle East WMDFZ is given as the elimination of the Middle Eastern WMD threat, but the realities on the ground and Egypt’s behaviour throughout the process suggest its motivations are not so straightforward. In the early to mid-1990s, a reasonable case could be made that the proposal was not only aimed at the Israeli nuclear arsenal but was prompted by the development and, in some cases, use of WMD by other regional states including Iraq and Syria. However, since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons in 2013 and the conclusion of the JCPOA, it has become difficult to argue that Israel is not the focus of Arab efforts on this front.

Despite Egypt having been at the vanguard of the Middle East WMDFZ effort from early on, it has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) or the IAEA’s Additional Protocol, nor has it ratified treaties that it has already signed: the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the African Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty, also known as the Treaty of Pelindaba. Cairo ratified the NPT in 1981 (which it had signed in 1968), and its Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) entered into force the following year.

Egypt has been a vocal critic of the NPT for its lack of universality, and has supported a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East, citing Israel’s non-accession to the NPT as an obstacle to this process. Not all countries in the Middle East see the utility nor support the normative benefits of a WMDFZ, highlighting the need to approach it within a wider context. Continuing to think that this process is primarily about establishing such a zone without addressing the primary interests of those countries involved has led to a process that is not transparent and has limited the prospects for success. This is evident from the discrepancy between the policies and postures of the two most prominent parties in the negotiations, Egypt (representing the Arab states) and Israel. Egypt wants to close the gap in WMD capabilities between the states of the region and specifically highlights Israel’s nuclear programme. Israel, in contrast, sees the negotiations as an opportunity to engage directly with the Arab states and pave the way for the normalization of ties between them.

Egypt claims this is in order to retain the use of its pending ratifications as leverage over Israel’s refusal to join the NPT.[3] Efforts to persuade Egypt to sign and ratify the CWC as a confidence-building measure have stalled, as it claims that it already brings enough to the negotiating table with its existing membership of the NPT and signatory status on other arms control treaties. Egypt faces different security challenges, like domestic unrest, as its struggling economy might lead to a renewed revolution like during the Arab Spring. In 2020, Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry said that Egypt demands the total elimination of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, and the establishment of a regional nuclear-weapon-free zone (NWFZ). He added that Egypt is worried about the failure to establish a zone free of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East in accordance with the decision issued in the 1995 Review and Extension Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).[4]

Shoukry said Egypt hopes the next review conference will adopt a balanced final document that reaffirms commitment to previous resolutions, including the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East, in light of the consensus reached at the UN in 2019 to establish such a zone.[5] He emphasized that “the path must be unconditional.” The failure to universalize the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons is significantly eroding the credibility of disarmament and non-proliferation regimes, as well as international norms.[6]

In Nuclear Weapons and Arms Control in Middle East, Shai Feldman identifies the main difference between proposed Israeli and Egyptian texts on the NWFZ as “the mechanism by which an NWFZ should be established in the Middle East. The Egyptian draft resolutions do not elaborate a mechanism for such establishment or even suggest that a formal agreement to create such an NWFZ should be negotiated and signed by the region’s states. Rather, they implied that the Middle East should simply comply with the stipulations of the announced zone.”[7] The Egyptian proposal also did not define the obligations that these states would be taking towards each other: instead, it referred to their commitment towards the zone. Egypt did recognize that “efforts aimed at redressing the threats posed by the nuclear dimensions of the arms race would, without doubt, be facilitated by the resolution of the political problems in the region and vice-versa.” But it rejected the linkage between the two, arguing that arms control cannot wait for peace.

A second distinction between the two proposals is their approach to the NPT and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. The Egyptian proposal suggested that pending the establishment of a NWFZ in the Middle East, the region’s states should adhere to the stipulations of the NPT and should subject all facilities to IAEA safeguards. Nabil Fahmy, a member of Egypt’s delegation, said that nuclear weapon states would have to be verified by intrusive measures. “Verification will, of course, have to be commensurate with the requirements for making the zone truly nuclear-weapons free”.

In conclusion, Egypt had been the most active advocate of the Middle East WMDFZ, and ratified the NPT in 1981. Yet the country remains concerned about the failure to establish any zone free of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. Egypt hopes for a balanced final commitment to previous resolutions, including the establishment of a NWFZ in the Middle East, in light of the consensus reached at the UN in 2019 to establish such a zone.

* Alexandria University, Egypt

[1] ACRS: Arms control and Regional Security in the Middle East

[2] Middle East WMD-Free Zone: Thinking the Possible. thinking-the-possible/

[3] Esfandiary, D. (2014), ‘In the Middle East, Get Rid of Chemical Weapons First’, Arms Control Association, 9 September 2014,

[4] “Egypt calls for establishing Middle East nuclear-weapon-free zone”, Daily News-Egypt, October 3, 2020.

[5] “Egypt urges commitment to nuclear-weapon-free zone in Middle East: FM”, Ahram Online, Saturday 3 Oct 2020.

[6] Diffusing Looming Arms Race Critical for Global Security, Secretary General Warns, as General Assembly Marks International Day to Eliminate Nuclear Weapons, 2 October 2020.

[7] Shai Feldman, Nuclear Weapons and Arms Control in Middle East, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1997), p. 96