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Analysts Say Egypt Must Remain Free of Nuclear Weapons

Egyptians celebrate the news of the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, Feb 11, 2011

Egyptians celebrate the news of the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, Feb 11, 2011

In this report from Washington, Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at Egypt's nuclear program and its stance on chemical weapons. With Egypt's political future still in limbo, analysts question whether Cairo's policy of not seeking nuclear weapons will remain in place.

Egypt's Nuclear Legacy

Egypt has two nuclear research reactors located at Inshas, near Cairo. They are used for peaceful purposes, such as medical research and nuclear engineering experiments.

But analysts agree that Egypt sought to acquire a nuclear weapons capability back in the 1960s. Former Defense Department official James Russell, who is now with the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California says interest in building a nuclear capability or developing an indigenous peaceful nuclear program ended during the presidency of Gamal Abdel Nasser.

"Nasser realized the deep financial costs that are going to be required and he also realized the political costs that would accrue from an Egypt developing a nuclear program," said Russell. "And so all these projects were canceled after the [Six Day] 1967 war. And then in 1968, Egypt signs the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty [NPT]. And since then the Sadat government ratifies the NPT in February 1981. And in 1982, they have a safeguards agreement, a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA]."

Analyst Mark Fitzpatrick, from London's International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), says Egypt does not have the most modern technologies that could be used to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons.

"The issue is, though, that Egypt conducted some experiments in plutonium separation that they did not notify the IAEA in accordance with their safeguards agreement and it later came out and the IAEA did an investigation," noted Fitzpatrick. "And most of that was cleared up, but there are some remaining questions. And most recently, some highly-enriched uranium particles were discovered by the IAEA and I think they are still investigating the source of that. That all has not yet come out in IAEA reporting, so there is some small cloud hanging over Egypt's nuclear program. I am not saying they are going for nuclear weapons, but they did some things that were not fully in accordance with the rules."

Fitzpatrick says the plutonium experiments were conducted during the past couple of decades and came to light about six or seven years ago. And the evidence concerning the highly-enriched uranium particles was disclosed in the media within the last two years.

Egypt, Iraq and WMDs

On another issue, some analysts, including James Russell, say there have been reports of Egyptians in the 1980s helping Iraq with its chemical weapons research.

"There were also rumors of the Egyptians being involved in building a chemical plant that could possibly have made items that were used for chemical munitions," added Russell. "But again, I don't think that there is any assessment out there today that suggests that the Egyptians are engaged in research or really have any interest in developing chemical weapons."

And Russell says Egypt does not have the necessary industrial base in the chemical sector to build chemical weapons.

"The truth of the matter is that almost all countries around the world - the United States and Russia included - everyone has come to the conclusion that these are not just terribly militarily useful weapons, or that it is a technology which really has limited use in the military arena," Russell explained.

Post Mubarak Concerns

Some experts have questioned whether a government replacing President Hosni Mubarak might reconsider some of Cairo's policies on weapons of mass destruction.

"In the chemical and nuclear arenas, the costs to the Egyptians of attempting such programs are significant," added Russell. "And it just seems to me that any political leadership in Egypt, whatever its character, is going to have to look at these costs. And they are a strong discouragement to them moving down this path to sort of reconsidering the decisions which have been looked at by previous political leadership. I just do not see it."

Analysts say given Cairo's leadership in the Middle East, it is essential that Egypt remains free of weapons of mass destruction to guarantee stability in that part of the world.