A Nuclear Nile

The Politics Behind Egypt’s Quest For Nuclear Energy

Electricity pylons and power transmission lines are seen at western desert road near Minya governorate, south of Cairo, May 27, 2015.  Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters

On November 19, less than six months after Iran and the P5+1 reached a historic nuclear deal, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi signed two agreements with Russia to finance and build Egypt’s first nuclear power plant. Under the agreement, the two countries will build and operate four 1,200-megawatt reactors in the northwestern city of Dabaa along the Mediterranean coast. 

The announcement came just days before Turkish authorities shot down a Russian fighter jet for allegedly violating its airspace. Now, the unfolding Russian–Turkish crisis could potentially enhance Cairo’s standing as it seeks to help shape events by establishing itself as an actor to be reckoned with within the region’s ever changing alliances. Already, Moscow and Riyadh are jockeying for Egypt’s support on Syria as they both seek to take advantage of Sisi’s known opposition to political Islam to advance their respective regional agendas. By deepening anti-terrorism cooperation with Egypt, especially in the recent aftermath of the downing of a Russian passenger plane over Sinai, Moscow hopes to strengthen its regional foothold. Saudi Arabia denounced the recent Russian military intervention in Syria, seeing it as an attempt by Moscow to preserve the Assad regime, an ally of Iran, Riyadh’s main regional rival. 


Sisi has used the region’s multiple crises to regain Egypt’s role as a regional power, which was lost with the fall of the Hosni Mubarak regime in 2011, which was followed by successive political crises. At the center of his quest is the development of Egypt's civilian nuclear program. On the home front, nuclear power would help alleviate Egypt's persistent electricity shortages and blackouts. Further, the plants could provide the power necessary to run desalination operations, which already provide Egypt with a significant amount of its drinking water (right now, they rely on expensive oil-based power).

There is a political rationale, too. Joining the nuclear club comes with international prestige and domestic favorability. In other words, Sisi could use the program

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