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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.
STRONG ARM STEADY
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 to both shore up domestic support by reversing Egypt’s chronic instability and economic malaise and to regain a leadership role within the Arab world. An Egyptian nuclear program would help Cairo redefine its relationships with Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—playing politics in order to get favorable funding terms from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi by aligning itself closer to their political adversary in Moscow.
Egypt, the most populous Arab state, is widely seen as the political, military and cultural center of the Arab world. Even if it is not stated publicly, there is an expectation in the Gulf States that in return for monetary aid, Egypt will make use of its military resources and political standing to help realize their interests.
But Egypt is playing a dangerous game if it thinks it can easily manage the region’s powers. Some critics of the Iran agreement fear that it could trigger a regional nuclear arms race between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and that the Egyptian–Russian agreement may well help Cairo eventually build a military nuclear program even if its adherence to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) still holds.
Israel senior officials, among them Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, said that countries that consider the Iran deal a threat, such as Egypt, will want to catch up to it, and a nuclear arms race will ensue in the Middle East. If Egypt were to decide to develop nuclear weapons, it would not be starting from zero. Past nuclear endeavors have left the country with two research reactors, an experienced group of physicists and engineers, and a number of universities capable of training a new generation of nuclear scientists.
It will be much harder to for the world to discourage such an outcome, too, since the nuclear deal with Iran signaled that Middle Eastern nuclear programs are permissible. To be sure, none of this means that an Egyptian military nuclear program is sure to follow. The direction of any Egyptian nuclear program is uncertain, although there are a few realistic possibilities.
For starters, Egypt may follow the model for nuclear development pioneered by the United Arab Emirates, which, in 2009, agreed not to conduct any fuel cycle activities—that is, to rely on international markets for supplies within its territory, which would prevent it from enriching weapons-grade nuclear material. The adoption of this policy, in addition to Abu Dhabi’s commitment to transparency and compliance with IAEA regulations, serves as a model for nonproliferation policy according to the U.S. State Department.
The Emirates established the terms and conditions of its peaceful nuclear program as an explicit alternative to Iran’s model. Following the Iran deal, though, Abu Dhabi has expressed reservations about its abstention from enriching uranium. In October, its ambassador to Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, told the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman that Abu Dhabi no longer felt bound by its previous nuclear agreement with the United States. Whether or not the ambassador’s remarks present a policy change remains to be seen.
THE GLOBAL GAME
At any rate, by turning to Russia for assistance, Egypt has already positioned itself to stand against U.S. pressure to maintain the present, nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. Given Russian President Vladimir Putin’s demonstrated commitment to curtailing U.S. global hegemony, Moscow may allow Cairo to enrich its own uranium in the distant future. It takes roughly ten years to develop enough industrial and technical capacity to establish a nuclear weapons program. Egypt could spend the first five years within the legal confines of its non-proliferation commitments. Under the cover of compliance, Cairo could work with Russia and others to build a military-grade nuclear program with relative ease.
For its part, Washington, through its continued partnership with the Egyptian military, will likely exert significant pressure on Egypt to adhere to the provisions of the NPT; namely, that Cairo cannot begin enriching uranium, and cannot be a part of handling spent nuclear fuel after its civilian use has ended. Sisi, however, views the United States as an unreliable ally due to the country’s initial support for the Muslim Brotherhood. The tensions in Cairo’s relationship with Washington make Sisi more interested in looking for another partner, like Russia, and perhaps more inclined to eventually turn a civilian nuclear program into a weapons-grade program.
Either way, in the short term, Egypt’s nascent nuclear program will embolden Sisi in the region. The nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 sets a new standard for the region. It is therefore not inconceivable that the Iranian precedent will encourage other Middle East nations to demand the same “rights” Tehran received regarding the ability to enrich uranium. Even if Iran keeps its part of the agreement, energy security and national prestige will remain on the table as powerful motivators for Egypt to continue and further develop its nuclear program. In the long term, Sisi will likely use the nuclear program for broader goals, including putting pressure on the United States. Whether or not the program ever leads to a nuclear arsenal, Egypt is looking to assert its power in a region that is growing increasing unstable by the year—and that just became easier.