The Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction: Egypt

By Bahgat, Gawdat | Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ), Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

The Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction: Egypt


Bahgat, Gawdat, Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)


EGYPT'S NUCLEAR POSTURE IS AN interesting case. Certainly, Egypt has strong incentives to "go nuclear." In the three decades following the Second World War, the Egyptian government perceived Israel as a sworn enemy and engaged in major military confrontations with Tel Aviv in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973. Besides these major wars, the two sides were involved in other military skirmishes and broad economic and diplomatic warfare. These security concerns were further heightened by the fact that Israel was developing nuclear weapons capability.

Other important motives for Egypt to pursue nuclear weapons are leadership and prestige. Egypt is the most populous country in the Arab world and has always claimed, with strong justifications, a leadership role. This perception is based on demographic, political, economic, and cultural factors. Egypt's soft power (teachers, television programs, movies) has played a significant role in shaping Arab societies. This claimed leadership status has been challenged by Cairo's nuclear inferiority to Israel and, to a lesser degree, to other regional potential proliferators such as Iraq under Saddam Hussein and Iran.

At least for these two powerful reasons--security concerns and prestige --Egypt should have vigorously sought to acquire nuclear weapons. This, however, is not the case. Rhetoric aside, there are no indications that the Egyptian leaders have ever made a strong commitment to pursue such an option. Building a nuclear weapon program takes a long period of time and requires substantial financial and human resources. These investments have to be backed by a determined political will. The Egyptian case suggests that this necessary strong political determination was lacking. Instead, it seems that the Egyptian leaders (Gamal Abd al-Nasser, Anwar al-Sadat, and Hosny Mubarak) have never been convinced that acquiring nuclear weapons would serve Egypt's national interests. Consciously or otherwise, it seems that the Egyptian leaders have reached the conclusion that a nuclear option was too costly and the benefits were too little. Accordingly, after some unsuccessful efforts to build a nuclear weapons program in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Egyptian leaders abandoned this strategy. There are no indications that Egypt would consider the nuclear option in the foreseeable future.

Instead, the Egyptians have pursued several other options that might improve their security and enhance their national prestige. These include building a strong conventional weapons capability, stockpiling chemical weapons, and championing the call for making the entire Middle East a nuclear weapons free zone. Furthermore, Egyptian leaders have always asserted that they would acquire nuclear weapons if the need arises. These assurances seem to satisfy domestic public opinion.

This essay examines Egypt's chemical, biological, and nuclear programs and the efforts to build a missile capability. It analyzes the forces that have shaped Egypt's strategic planning including leadership perception, war and peace with Israel, relations with the United States, and economic and financial restraints. The argument is that despite strong incentives and potential capabilities to initiate a nuclear program, Egyptian leaders have pursued a low utility of nuclear weapons in the overall national security strategy. The combination of economic predicaments, close ties to the United States, and changing security dynamics suggests that the government in Cairo is highly unlikely to seek nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future.

NON-CONVENTIONAL CAPABILITIES--HISTORY AND ASSESSMENT

Like many countries Egypt openly denies the possession of any Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). However, Egypt is believed to have invested substantial resources in developing missiles, chemical weapons capability, and, to a less extent, biological and nuclear weapons.

Chemical Weapons: Since the late 1950s, Egypt's interest in Chemical Weapons (CW) was, to a great extent, in response to Israel's efforts to build nuclear weapons. …

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