Sunday, January 20, 2008
Nuclear Egypt? Quite possible
Nuclear Egypt? Quite possible
Egypt's ruling elite loves to see itself at the centre of West Asian politics; for the Presidential Palace and its retinue of loyalists, Cairo is the most important place, the gateway to what Americans refer to as 'Middle East', stretching across the Maghreb and the Mashreq. Ever since Anwar Sadat decided to part company with the Russians (in those days it was the USSR) after his predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser's disastrous 'United Arab Republic' political and military campaign, the US has been particularly charitable towards Egypt. Sadat's historic visit to Jerusalem and the equally historic peace agreement he signed with Israel paved the path for greater American assistance, amounting to $ 2 billion every year. Egypt became the bulwark against Arab radicalism, the launching pad for America's West Asia policy. There was no change in this arrangement after Sadat's assassination by Islamists on October 6, 1981. Indeed, American support for the palace increased: President Hosni Mubarak was -- and remains -- the best choice to keep the Ikhwan-ul Muslimeen (Muslim Brotherhood) at bay.
But with new players emerging in West Asia and Saudi Arabia, under the tutelage of King Abdullah, who is desperate to rid his country of its 'extremist', if not Wahaabi, tag so that it is not seen as an exporter of fanatical Islam, Egypt has been suffering an erosion of its exalted stature as the key player. This is also because Egypt is now being increasingly seen as a spoiler, instead of facilitator, in the Israel-Palestine peace process. Cairo does have a tendency to scowl if others are able to achieve something which it has failed to secure -- King Abdullah's initiative to break the deadlock over Israel-Palestine peace negotiations at the Arab League's Riyadh summit last year left quite a few Egyptians smarting; many of them are still sulking.
What has added perceived 'insult' to Cairo's imaginary 'injury' is the increasing realisation in Washington that the wider Arab-Israeli conflict has now mutated into an Israeli-Palestinian issue. Hence, any peace deal has to be essentially a bilateral agreement between Tel Aviv/Jerusalem and Ramallah, or else it is doomed to fail, just like the 'Road Map' crafted by the US State Department turned out to be a miserable failure. A third factor that has contributed to what Egyptians see as their country's "diminishing" role is Iran's attempt to emerge as the sole leader of 'Greater Middle East'. While Tehran has been cautious not to overtly flaunt its Shia credentials in Sunni Arab-dominated West Asia and reached out in equal measure to both Shia Hizbullah and Sunni Hamas, the Shia-Sunni fault-line cannot be ignored. Strangely, the Arab street, which should have witnessed the manifestation of this fault-line, is supportive of Iran since it is perceived as more daring than the Arab palace in challenging the Americans.
The US knows the implications of allowing Shia Iran to gain in stature in West Asia. It also knows that Saudi Arabia can play the Sunni card with greater finesse than Egypt. Hence, Riyadh now dominates America's West Asia strategy, not Cairo. And Americans being Americans, they have not been particularly careful about Egyptian toes while shifting strategy -- diplomacy, contrary to popular opinion, is not the US's strength. This was on display during President George W Bush's visit to the region last week. Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian journalist, is scathing in her comments on the visit: "The most recent reminder of Egypt's diminished role in regional politics came when President George W Bush ended his Middle East trip by pausing in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. He thanked President Hosni Mubarak six times and used the word 'appreciate' 10 times. But sweet words don't hide simple maths: Mr Bush spent just three hours in Egypt -- an afterthought compared to the two days he had just spent in Saudi Arabia, where he delivered a major arms sale, and sword-danced with the relatives of Saudi King Abdullah."
Pharaohnic anger, which Mr Mubarak can summon with amazing ease, is not to be trifled with; an enraged Egypt is not good news -- for the US, the region and the extended neighbourhood which is skirted by India's western border. Early indications of the storm blowing through Cairo's corridors of power are already available. Iran's Alalam news network has put out an interesting story from Beirut: "Former Egyptian Ambassador in Tehran says Egypt strongly defends Iran's right to possess peaceful nuclear programme. In an exclusive interview, Mr Mahmoud Faraj said during Mr Bush's visit to the region Egypt strongly defended Iran's right to own atomic technology for civilian purposes... stressing Mr Bush failed in his attempt to win the Arab countries' support against Iran." According to this report, Mr Faraj spoke of the "need for restoration of Egyptian-Iranian relations (which broke down after Tehran provided shelter to Sadat's assassin, Khaled Al-Islambuli, and named a street after him) as soon as possible".
A second, more interesting report, has emanated from Cairo, disclosing that Egypt's "first nuclear reactor will be built at Dabba on the Mediterranean coast west of the main port of Alexandria". The report adds that the site "meets all the safety conditions and the requirements of operating an electricity generating nuclear plant". Egypt's nuclear energy programme dates back to the days of unrestricted Russian military aid. But unsure of the safety standards, Egypt abandoned its nuclear programme, at least officially, in 1986 after the Chernobyl disaster. There are reasons to believe that Egypt has been working towards reviving its nuclear programme, under the cover of civilian use of nuclear technology, for the last few years. In October 2007, Mr Mubarak gave rumours some legitimacy by announcing the "beginning of a national plan for setting up nuclear plants for peaceful use".
Of late the IAEA has been discomfited by reports of Egypt kick-starting its nuclear programme, not least because Cairo, which had an active nuclear weapons programme during 1954-67 but later opted for the NPT, has failed to disclose details of experiments at its revived nuclear facilities. Egypt is believed to have two nuclear reactors and signed an agreement with Russia in 2001 for "scientific and technical cooperation in the peaceful use of atomic energy according to Egypt's national nuclear needs and priorities". Are the Russians, eager to take on the Americans, behind Egypt's revived nuclear programme? After all, Moscow has been more than supportive of Tehran's bomb-in-the-basement programme. Worse, it could be Iran holding out a nuclear olive branch to its foe while all American eyes are trained on Saudi Arabia. This could mark a new chapter in that region's tempestuous history.