Egypt’s nuclear bombshell, new era or marketing ploy?

CAIRO — Egypt’s announcement last week that it was relaunching its civil nuclear energy programme after a 20-year freeze prompted a frenzy of government announcements about the need for nuclear energy.

But whether Egypt is entering a new era of shifting power balances in the region, or whether it is merely seeking to add gloss to a pro-Western regime losing domestic appeal, is still an issue of debate among analysts.

On September 19, the son of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Gamal Mubarak, first announced Egypt’s nuclear plans at the ruling party’s annual conference.

Mubarak junior, who is the party’s assistant secretary general and also heads the influential policies secretariat, said the time had come for Egypt to think about nuclear energy.

The message was reinforced by the president himself at the conference closing speech who said that Egypt “must benefit from sources of new and renewable energy, including peaceful uses of nuclear energy.” Less than a week later, government officials were quick to follow up on the president’s speech.

The Egyptian government’s supreme council for Energy met for the first time in 18 years to discuss alternative energy sources and Electricity Minister Hassan Yunes laid out plans to have an operational 1,000 megawatt nuclear power station within 10 years.

But Egypt’s budding nuclear programme cannot be separated from regional politics, analysts say.

With Israel’s nuclear threat looming nearby, Iran’s nuclear activities the current hot topic, and Turkey’s plans to build three nuclear power plants by 2012, Egypt’s plans to join the nuclear race were expected.

“Of course it comes at a time when Iran has shocked the region with its nuclear activities,” said Mohammed Sayed Said of the Ahram Centre for Strategic Studies.

“Egypt needed to establish a sense of legitimacy in the region,” he told AFP.

Egypt’s nuclear programme was first initiated by late Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s. The programme was stopped and relaunched on several occasions but was finally frozen in 1986 following the accident at the Chernobyl power plant in what was then the Soviet Union.

“All you need now is to revive an existing programme. I believe it will be implemented,” said Said.

But experts feel that Egypt’s new source of confidence in the region could be undermined by pressures to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty’s (NPT) additional protocol which grants the International Atomic Energy Agency wider inspection powers, allows surprise inspections and the ability to search all facilities.

Three Egyptian nuclear experts told the daily Al-Masri al-Yom on Tuesday that if Egypt, a signatory to the to NPT since 1968, were to sign the additional protocol it would be a “catastrophe.” “It will allow inspectors to enter Egypt at any time and to inspect any place. They will search schools, hospitals and universities which would leave Egypt naked before the international inspectors,” said former director of the Atomic Energy Institute Ezzat Abdul Aziz, Hisham Fuad, nuclear chemistry professor and Abdul Fattah Helal of the Scientific Council.

But Egypt could not have made the nuclear announcement without previous approval from the US, others argue, therefore defeating the purpose of standing up to the West.

“I believe that Egypt consulted the US before announcing any nuclear plans so that it doesn’t look like a challenge,” said Said.

“They wouldn’t put it like the Iranians, this is not the style of the Mubarak regime,” he said.

Aside from the regional factors, domestically Mubarak’s regime has faced much pressure at a time when Egyptian public opinion stands firmly behind Iran for defying the US, and behind the Shiite group Hizbollah following the Israeli offensive in Lebanon.

“The increasing shift and radicalisation of Egyptian political communities has contributed to the mounting pressure on Egypt,” according to Said.

Others, however, question the seriousness of the programme, seeing it as no more than a way for the ruling party to gain ground by appealing to popular sentiment.

“Why would Egyptians be excited about such an announcement when the United States was the first to applaud it and say it would willingly cooperate?” columnist Mohammad Salah wrote in the daily Al-Masri al-Yom on Thursday.

On Thursday, US ambassador to Egypt Francis J. Ricciardone said that Washington would have no objection to Egypt’s peaceful use of nuclear energy because “the United States encourages the peaceful use of nuclear power for civilian purposes throughout the world”.

“If they were really serious about a nuclear programme, there wouldn’t be such a show,” regional political expert Emad Gad told AFP. “They would have just gotten to work.”

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