'No need for nukes'
Officials reject demands from some members of the Shura Council that Egypt develop a nuclear weapons programme, reports Gamal Essam El-Din
For days now, independent and opposition members of the consultative upper house, the Shura Council, have been orchestrating a surprise call for Egypt to develop a long-term nuclear weapons programme.
"With Israel in possession of more than 200 nuclear warheads and Iran actively developing a clandestine nuclear weapons programme Egypt cannot remain content with a peaceful nuclear programme." Nagui El-Shehabi, an appointed member of the Shura Council and chairman of the Geel (Generation) opposition party, told the council during a discussion of a bill regulating Egypt's first nuclear power stations.
While El-Shehabi argued that "it is essential for Egypt to develop a nuclear programme capable of meeting rising demand for energy in the short term" in the long term he insisted it was equally "to develop a nuclear weapons programme capable of deterring enemies, especially Israel and Iran".
Fellow appointed Shura member and chairman of the Social Justice Party Osama Shaltout demanded Egypt revoke its membership of the 1968 Non- Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
"Why should we continue to respect a treaty that the UN Security Council's five permanent members consistently flout, and that Israel refuses to join?" asked Shaltout. Egypt's possession of nuclear weapons, he argued, was not only in the national interest but would benefit all Arab countries by "striking a strategic balance with their enemy, Israel".
Rifaat El-Said, chairman of the leftist Tagammu Party, noted that in the mid-1950s Egypt was the first state in the Middle East to initiate a nuclear energy programme.
"Late President Gamal Abdel-Nasser was a visionary. He believed that the possession of nuclear weapons was necessary to stand up to the Israeli threat. However, the programme was hindered by the 1967 war against Israel. Then, when momentum was growing to resurrect the programme in the early 1980s along came the Chernobyl disaster."
Mamdouh Qenawi, chairman of the Free Constitutional Party, accused Israel and the United States of doing their best to prevent Arab countries from gaining access to nuclear technology. "America turned a blind eye to Israel developing its nuclear arsenal and aids it in avoiding signing up to the NPT," said Qenawi.
Government officials responded by underlining that Egypt's nuclear ambitions were entirely peaceful.
Moufid Shehab, minister of state for legal and parliamentary affairs, reiterated President Hosni Mubarak's statement two years ago that Egypt's nuclear plans would be fully transparent. "Egypt is fully aware of Israel's nuclear arsenal and is doing its best to encourage the international community to exert pressure on the Jewish state to disarm," he said.
"We fully respect the NPT, which Egypt ratified in 1980, and our commitment to the treaty is such as to help us secure nuclear technology in a legal and internationally acceptable way."
Safwat El-Sherif, chairman of the Shura Council and secretary-general of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), insisted that "Egypt has no need for a nuclear armament programme".
"Egypt is in possession of weapons that are perfectly capable of off-setting any nuclear threat. States that are happy to develop nuclear arsenals must surely realise they are not enough to save them from destruction. Nuclear weapons are a danger to them as well as to us, and they should be aware that the dangers for them are greater."
Minister of Electricity and Energy Hassan Younis indicated that the Vienna-based nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), would have full access to Egypt's nuclear programme which "will be developed within a framework of transparency and respect for Egypt's NPT commitments."
In May the IAEA claimed that Egypt possessed "small amounts of highly enriched uranium" of weapons grade. An IAEA report said inspectors had found that between 2007 and 2008 Egypt had used the Inshas Nuclear Research Reactors in the Nile- Delta governorate of Sharqiya (to produce small amounts of 20 per cent enriched uranium. Egyptian officials denied the IAEA's claims and said that Israel was responsible for the leaked report.
In October 2007, President Mubarak unveiled plans to build five nuclear power stations within 13 years. In November he stressed that "Egypt is not in need of anyone's permission to develop a nuclear programme as long as it has signed the NPT."
"Do not forget that Egypt was the first in the region to have a group of trusted nuclear experts," Chairman of the Shura Council's Industry Committee Mohamed Farid Khamis told Al-Ahram Weekly. He has no doubts that Egypt will soon be in possession of the nuclear know-how to pursue its energy programme.
Former prime minister Atef Ebeid urged the government to extend security protection to Egyptian nuclear experts. "Israel assassinated a number of Egyptian nuclear experts in the past and this must not be allowed to happen again," he said.
The 107-article bill bans private sector investment in nuclear power stations in Egypt on security grounds. Members of the Shura Council have accused a number of influential NDP businessmen of seeking to exclude Al-Dabaa, on Egypt's northern Mediterranean coast, from being considered a possible site for one of the five proposed nuclear power stations.
The final decision on Al-Dabaa, says Younis, will be left to Worley Parsons, the Australian based engineering consultants contracted to identify possible locations for Egypt's nuclear power plants. They are due to deliver their findings at the end of this month.