A WMDFZ in the Middle East: An Egyptian Perspective

Sabrina Tripodi*

Egypt’s nuclear posture is often seen as “an interesting case”.[i] Egypt, the most populated country in the Arab world, historically viewed as “a leader in the pan-Arab movement”, has often been expected to develop a nuclear weapons programme.[ii] Egypt would indeed have great national security justification for doing so. In the 1960s, international media revealed that the French government was providing assistance to Israel “in establishing a nuclear reactor in Dimona”.[iii] This discovery placed the Israeli nuclear issue on Egypt’s political-security agenda to this day. This security concern has been worsened by the broad economic and diplomatic warfare between Cairo and Tel Aviv, but also by Egypt’s self-perception of leadership and prestige in the Arab world. However, after unsuccessfully having tried to acquire nuclear weapons from the Soviet Union and China in the late 1960s, Egypt opted instead for chemical and biological capabilities, as well as missile acquisition and development.[iv]

Having forfeited the nuclear weapons option, Egypt began to lead non-proliferation efforts, specifically committing to advance President Mubarak’s call in 1990 for the establishment of a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone (WMDFZ) in the Middle East.[v] These efforts have strengthened the case that the Egyptian leadership is not acquiring weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).[vi] In this essay I will analyse the obstacles Egypt faced when pursuing the acquisition of the ‘nuclear option’, the nation’s shift towards its commitment to the WMDFZ in the Middle East, the motivations pushing Egypt to support the establishment of the Zone, and finally will conclude with Cairo’s contemporary situation.

In his article, Gawdat Bahgat brilliantly exposes the hardships faced by the Egyptian government while trying to access nuclear weapons in collaboration with foreign powers. In the 1960s, “Egypt was particularly interested in acquiring nuclear weapons to counter Israel’s nascent and growing nuclear programme in Dimona”.[vii] Yet Cairo’s attempt was unsuccessful, the Soviet Union and China having denied Egypt’s requests. After the disastrous 1967 war with Israel, Egypt’s “nuclear strategy was transformed”. The consequences of the Six-Day War in 1967 were not only political and military, but also economic. In addition, at this time, Soviet-Egyptian relations were growing ever closer. A Soviet presence in Egypt started to grow after the Egyptian monarchy was ousted in 1952. Egypt made a clear turn towards the Soviet Union after the United States refused to deliver it weapons in 1955.[viii] Nasser further cemented relations with the Soviet Union by adopting national planning and moved closer to the socialist model of economic development. This decision led Western powers and international banks to delay or reject Egypt’s requests for loans and other financial assistance, forcing the Egyptian government to replace them with Soviet support.[ix] It is in this context that Egypt became increasingly dependent on Soviet economic and military support, and a key focal point for Soviet policy in the Middle East.

The Six-Day War in 1967 saw Egypt’s economy considerably weakened and this trend continued even more so after Egypt’s involvement in the Yemeni war. Egypt’s battered economy represented a severe obstacle to any attempt of ‘going nuclear’. The relations between Cairo and Moscow also started to fade in 1972 with the rise of Egypt’s then President Sadat, who expelled the Soviet military advisors and began to make overtures towards the United States following the failed 1973 October War with Israel.[x]

Barnes-Dacey et al. (2018) explain the Soviet Union’s failure in the region through four reasons.The first reason is the “nationalist narrative” on which “the (Egyptian) independence has been largely won.”[xi] While communism was based on the expectation that it would lead to the end of nation states, “Arab nationalism exerted a far stronger appeal” in the region. The second links to communism’s focus on the working class. Particularly since the overwhelming majority of Arabs worked in the agricultural sector, the Marxist narrative, with its emphasis on the factory worker, only applied to a minority group.[xii] The third reason is based on “the strongly anti-religious discourse of communism” that was in direct opposition with conservative Islamic societies. The final reason is that the Soviet Union did not take a firm position in the Arab-Israeli conflict, in particular during the June 1967 war.[xiii]

Roger E. Kanet and Usha Venkatesan propose another explanation for Moscow’s decline in the region. They argue that “the Soviet refusal to provide the Egyptian army with the military equipment which the latter demanded” is an important factor in “the major shift in Soviet-Egyptian relations.”[xiv] Sadat’s fear “that a Soviet-American détente might result in reduced Soviet support for national liberation movements and for the Arabs” also appears important. While the position of the United States fell among Arab states during the 1950s and 1960s, it emerged as the leading external actor in the Arab-Israeli negotiations following the Yom Kippur War of October 1973. This implied a “virtual elimination of a Soviet role in the peace negotiations”, most evident in the case of Egypt, which by late 1977 had severed ties with the Soviet Union.[xv] In the mid-1970s, President al-Sadat launched the Infitah, Egypt’s programme of economic liberalization, which “coincided with massive American economic and military aid”. The US foreign assistance, however, came with constraints based on the “norms and rules dictated by the international system and the United States”. These obligated the country to respect these norms and rules so as to not imperil the foreign sources of income. Egypt had to abandon the ‘nuclear option’ once again.[xvi]

Gawdat Bahgat (2007) names the Egyptian leadership as another obstacle to the acquisition of nuclear weapons. None of the previous presidents (Gamal Abd al-Nasser, Anwar al-Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak) have shown the necessary “strong commitment to pursue such an option”.[xvii] This appears to be the case with contemporary leader Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, who instead focuses on pursuing nuclear energy.[xviii] In fact, various other prerequisites essential to accede to nuclear weapons were lacking, in particular sustaining substantial financial and human resources. For such resources to be allocated would require determined political will from the Egyptian leadership. Such backing has been missing from the equation as the Egyptian leaders “have never been convinced that acquiring nuclear weapons would serve Egypt’s national interests (…) a nuclear option was too costly and the benefits were too little.”[xix]

These repeated failures in Egypt’s attempts to acquire nuclear weapons pushed the country to sign the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in July 1968and to start “championing the call for making the entire Middle East a nuclear weapons free zone”.[xx] As several scholars have shown, Egypt’s hope in signing the NPT in 1968 was to “put pressure on Israel to follow suit”.[xxi] These researchers have also linked Egypt’s call for a WMDFZ in the Middle East to the nation’s attempt to enhance its national prestige and Middle Eastern leadership role. The Israeli and Iranian issues, as well as the Iraqi one in the past, are indeed perceived by Egypt as the main obstacles towards both its stature in the Middle East (and to a greater extent in the world) and the path towards realizing a WMDFZ in the region.[xxii]

As previously noted, in the 1960s the world was made aware of French assistance to Israel in building a nuclear reactor in Dimona, placing this affair at the very centre of Egypt’s political and security agenda. Indeed, the Israeli nuclear issue represents a “multidimensional threat” to Egypt.[xxiii] Cairo has often expressed the traditional threat the Israeli nuclear capability might pose not only to Egypt, but to the entire Middle East. However, Shimon Stein argues that “the direct threat to Egypt inherent in Israel’s nuclear capability is less severe than Israel’s superiority in the areas of science, technology, and economy”. Tel-Aviv’s superiority in the nuclear field “exposes Egypt’s inferiority and inability to remedy it” and “constitutes a blow to Egypt’s self-image”.[xxiv] Emily Landau raises a similar point, arguing that Egypt saw the nuclear issue as a path toward consolidating its leadership position in the Arab world, and that “Egypt’s interest in the nature of the Middle East once peace agreements have been achieved – in this future Middle East, Israel would most likely be Egypt’s foremost rival for regional power, and Egypt was reluctant to reach this stage with Israel as a nuclear power”.[xxv]

In order to confront this obstacle, in 1960 Egypt began to threaten a preventive war by targeting Israel’s nuclear installations.[xxvi] However, Nasser never materialized this threat, presumably due to Israel’s military superiority. Another solution envisaged by the Egyptian leadership has been its failed attempts to acquire nuclear capabilities from foreign powers. These events marked Egypt’s shift towards calling for a WMDFZ in the Middle East, “lobby(ing) Israel to sign the NPT and dismantle its nuclear weapons and (…) [at the same time] to pursue other kinds of WMDs, particularly chemical weapons” and missiles. [xxvii]

The solution chosen by Egypt to realize the Zone and disarm Israel took place within the diplomatic arena.[xxviii] This diplomatic ‘war’ has been centred on the UN Security Council, the UN General Assembly First Committee, the UN General Assembly, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the NPT Conference. The country circulated several “motions and reports published at the IAEA and the UN as main tools towards the ostensible goal of establishing a nuclear- and WMD-free zone in the Middle East”.[xxix] Egypt also made many commentaries, statements, and speeches, stressing the necessity for Israel to address its nuclear weapons capabilities by either eliminating it or agree to international inspections and control.[xxx] Cairo voiced regional security concerns, claiming that Israel’s nuclear capability is a threat for the region and would incite the proliferation of WMDs in the Middle East.

Egypt has also pointed out the West’s and the United States of America’s “double standard”, as Landau explains, “vis-à-vis Israel and the Arab States in the non-conventional realm”. While imposing a highly intrusive inspection regime on Iraq, the US actively helped Israel in advancing along all aspects of its “perceived qualitative edge”.[xxxi] Knowing that it needs the US’s backing to fulfil its objective, Egypt has long called for the US to press Israel to join the NPT.[xxxii]

Another solution was to support various US-led initiatives. In May 1991, President George H. W. Bush introduced his Middle East arms control initiative. Egypt accepted the plan but “made it clear that Israel should be included in the implementation of the initiative regarding the need to report on the inventory of nuclear materials in its possession.”[xxxiii] Cairo also welcomed the American initiative to form the Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) working group, as another multilateral venue for discussing broader regional security issues. However, in 1992, Egyptian foreign minister Amr Moussa expressed the necessity to also deal with the Israeli nuclear issue. Realizing that Egypt’s appeal would not be met within the ACRS framework hindered the continuation of the process as it would “endanger Egypt’s ability to shape the Arab agenda and as a result, threaten its regional leadership”. Ultimately, Egypt halted talks within the ACRS in 1995.[xxxiv] Furthermore, after having first opposed the US intention to extend the NPT indefinitely, Egypt accepted it in exchange for the adoption of a resolution on the Middle East.[xxxv] Stein presents this resolution as an Egyptian achievement, as Cairo managed to “firmly insert the Israeli nuclear issue” without mentioning Israel, “and thus transform the issue from an Egyptian-Arab pursuit to an international issue”.[xxxvi]

Continuing suspicion around Iran’s nuclear capabilities has increasingly been perceived as a threat to Egypt and the rest of the Arab states.However, as it is argued to be the case with Israel, it seems that Iran does not pose an immediate threat to Egypt. Rather, Iran is seen as a menace to Egypt’s stability and status in the region. Stein posits that Egypt has dealt with the Iranian issue differently due to Egypt’s feeling of “ownership in spearheading the Israeli nuclear issue at NPT conferences and at international forums in general”.[xxxvii] Conversely, the Egyptians view Iran as not only seeking regional dominance but also a fundamental change in the existing regional order that would directly threaten Egypt’s political stability.

Egypt’s attempts to acquire nuclear weapons were thwarted by three factors: foreign powers rejecting the nation’s requests to acquire nuclear weapons; the hardships faced in the economic sector, both under Soviet assistance and after Egypt’s shift towards American aid; and the lack of strong commitment from the Egyptian leaders to pursue nuclear weapons. This ultimately led Egypt to champion the call for a WMDFZ in the Middle East as a way to enhance regional security, and to strengthen its national prestige and leadership role in the region. The Iranian issue, and especially the Israeli nuclear issue, are at the very heart of Egypt’s concerns. Both Tel-Aviv and Teheran hover over Egypt’s esteem and underline Cairo’s nuclear and technological inferiority. Finally, Iran poses a new and emerging threat to Egypt as Iran might disrupt the existing regional order.

Contemporary Egypt continues to be perceived as sustaining its leadership role in advocating to establish the WMDFZ and in criticizing Israel’s nuclear weapons programme. However, Egypt’s reputation is tarnished with suspicion over maintaining a chemical warfare capability and the means of delivery.[xxxviii] Scholars seem nonetheless to agree that Egypt “currently views the development of nuclear weapons as contrary to its strategic interests”.[xxxix] Finally, the country has ratified the NPT, and has signed but not ratified the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), as well as the Treaty of Pelindaba (or the African Nuclear Weapons Free Zone) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Cairo has so far resisted signing the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).[xl]

* Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic

[i] Gawdat Bahgat. “The Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction: Egypt.” Arab Studies Quarterly 29, no. 2 (2007): 1–15. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41859024.

[ii] Yarik Turianskyi and Jo-Ansie van Wyk, eds. “Nuclear Power and Governance Frameworks: Egypt, Ghana and South Africa.” South African Institute of International Affairs (2021), http://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep32572.

[iii] Shimon Stein. “Between Israel and Iran: Egypt and the 2010 NPT Review Conference.” Eds. Emily B. Landau and Tamar Malz-Ginzburg. The Obama Vision and Nuclear Disarmament. Institute for National Security Studies (2011): http://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep08979.10.

[iv] Bahgat (2007)

[v] Stein (2011)

[vi] Bahgat (2007)

[vii] Bahgat (2007)

[viii] Barnes-Dacey, Julien, et al. RUSSIA’S RETURN TO THE MIDDLE EAST: BUILDING SANDCASTLES? Edited by Nicu Popescu and Stanislav Secrieru, European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS), 2018, http://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep21138

[ix] Bahgat (2007)

[x] Roger E. Kanet, and Usha Venkatesan. “The Soviet Union & the Middle East: The Egyptian-Israeli Treaty & Recent Soviet Policy.” Asian Perspective 4, no. 1 (1980): 54–73. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43737945.

[xi] Barnes-Dacey et al (2018)

[xii] Barnes-Dacey et al. (2018)

[xiii] Ibid. p.19

[xiv] Kanet and Venkatesan (1980)

[xv] Ibid. p.66

[xvi] Bahgat (2007)

[xvii] Ibid. p.2

[xviii] Heba Taha. “Nuclear Revival in North Africa? Developments in Algeria, Libya, and Egypt.” South African Institute of International Affairs (2021). http://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep32577.

[xix] Bahgat (2007)

[xx] Ibid. p.2

[xxi] Ibid. p.5

[xxii] See Bahgat (2007), Stein (2011), and Emily Landau. “Egypt’s Perception of the Nuclear Threat.” in Egypt and Israel in ACRS: Bilateral Concerns in a Regional Arms Control Process. Institute for National Security Studies (2001): 24.

[xxiii] Stein (2011)

[xxiv] Ibid. p. 101

[xxv] Landau (2001): p.24

[xxvi] Bahgat (2007): p.9

[xxvii] Ibid.

[xxviii] Stein (2011)

[xxix] Ibid. p.102

[xxx] Landau (2001): p.24

[xxxi] Ibid

[xxxii] Stein (2011)

[xxxiii] Ibid. p.104

[xxxiv] Ibid. p.105

[xxxv] The contents of the resolution include: “adoption of the goals of the peace process and the efforts to advance it contributes to promoting a Middle East free of nuclear weapons and other WMD; countries that have not yet joined the NPT are called on to do so and assume international obligations not to purchase nuclear arms of fissile material; countries are called on to submit their nuclear activity to IAEA inspection; concern over the existence of unsupervised facilities in the Middle East; countries that possess such facilities are called on to place them under full IAEA inspection; emphasis on the importance of the early implementation of universal adherence to the NPT; and a call for practical steps in the appropriate forums to advance a WMDFZ in the Middle East. The parties were called on to avoid taking steps harmful to implementation of the NPT.”

[xxxvi] Stein (2011)

[xxxvii] Ibid

[xxxviii] The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) website: Egypt https://www.nti.org/learn/countries/egypt/

[xxxix] Turianskyi and van Wyk (2021)

[xl] See the Middle East Treaty Organization (METO) website: Treaty Status Per Country https://www.wmd-free.me/home/treaties/