Why is impoverished Egypt seeking a nuclear program?

Why is Morsi committing to an investment of billions of dollars when it is embroiled in economic crisis that is fueling unrest in an already explosive political environment?

April 25, 2013 03:49
3 minute read.
Egypt's Morsi in CNN interview, January 7, 2013

Egyptian President Mohamad Morsi in CNN interview 370. (photo credit: Screenshot)

Earlier this week, Egypt announced that it is seeking Russian assistance to revive its nuclear program.

Why is the government of Mohamed Morsi committing itself to an investment of billions of dollars when it is embroiled in economic crisis that is fueling unrest in an already explosive political environment? It seems to be a move by the Muslim Brotherhood-led government to solidify the country’s position as a regional power, as well as a way to improve relations with Moscow since Cairo has been facing difficulties in getting aid from the International Monetary Fund.

The move could also be seen as a play to increase Cairo’s leverage with the West so that it receives the aid it desires without having to make too many concessions in return.

Then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak revived the dormant program in 1996 and planned to start a bidding process, but was removed from power in 2011. Mubarak might have seen the nuclear program in a similar light as does the Brotherhood leaders today — a way to gain regional and international influence.

Zvi Mazel, a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a former ambassador to Egypt and a Jerusalem Post contributor, told the Post that when Egypt first formed a nuclear research team back in 1961, the country was full of Soviet scientists.

“Mubarak at the beginning didn’t want a program,” he said, noting that its 2006 launch came quite late in Mubarak’s presidency, mainly because, by that time, Iran’s program was at an advanced stage.

“To build a reactor of the value of $4 billion is a political issue,” said Mazel, adding that “for America it is seen as a kind of offense” to cooperate with Moscow on nuclear energy, since Cairo receives so much aid from the US.

Egypt is the most important Sunni country, explained Mazel, and under the current circumstances — when almost every country in the region is seeking a nuclear program — Egypt must have one too.

The difference between Mubarak’s and Morsi’s nuclear ambitions is that Egypt today is in much worse shape than it was a few years ago.

The Islamist nature of the current leadership, he added, raises even more worries.

The Muslim Brotherhood, an anti- Western and anti-Semitic organization with global ambitions, does not mix well with a nuclear program, which would be viewed as a major threat by Israel and the West.

In a report by Ibrahim Said last year titled, “The bomb and the beard: The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s views toward weapons of mass destruction,” Said quotes Hamdi Hassan, spokesman of the Brotherhood’s parliamentary caucus, who said in 2006, “We [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.”

He goes on to quote the vice-spiritual guide of the Brotherhood in Egypt, Mohammed Habib, who stated in 2006, “I do not see any problem with Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon... according to nuclear deterrence theory, even if Iran has a nuclear weapon, it will be used to face the Israeli nuclear arsenal. And, this will create a form of balance between the two parties: the Arab-Islamic party on one hand and the Israeli party on the other.”

Egypt’s desire for a nuclear program could also be seen as part of the greater Sunni reaction to Iran’s program and what they fear will be a Shia nuclear bomb, which will cast a shadow over the entire region. Iran’s program has already triggered a number of “civilian” nuclear programs in other Sunni Arab countries.

A 2008 report by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies said that there were at least 13 states in the Middle East that recently announced or revived plans to develop civilian nuclear programs. The list includes Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey.

The nightmare scenario of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East as a result of Iran’s nuclear program is moving one step closer.

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