FLASHBACK: Muslim Brotherhood Presses Egyptian Government for Nuclear Weapons

In the summer of 2006, after pressing the Egyptian government for more than a year to restart the country’s nuclear power program, the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s foremost political opposition force, escalated its nuclear goals and openly called for Egypt to develop nuclear weapons as a counter to Israel’s nuclear capabilities. Against this background, the group reacted with little enthusiasm to the mid-september announcement by Jamal Mubarak, son of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, that Egypt would revive its peaceful nuclear power – without declaring that Egypt would build a nuclear deterrent. (See “Renewed Egyptian Ambitions for a Peaceful Nuclear Program” in this issue of WMD Insights.)

In 2005, revival of the Egyptian nuclear power program had been a rallying cry for the Muslim Brotherhood. In its 2005 parliamentary election platform, for example, it had declared that under its leadership, Egypt would develop “special national programs, such as the nuclear program, the space and aviation program, armaments program, and the bio-technology program.” [1] The party, which currently holds roughly one fifth of the seats in the Egyptian National Assembly (the lower house of the Egyptian parliament), used the nuclear issue to challenge the current Egyptian government, which had shown little interest in nuclear energy, unlike a number of states in the region, including Iran and Turkey.

By May 17, 2006, Brotherhood deputies were openly attacking the Mubarak government for not pursuing an active nuclear program. Ikhwanonline, the official website of the Muslim Brotherhood, stated that Brotherhood “deputies accuse the government of abandoning the nuclear program and [being content with not] building atomic power plants for peaceful purposes and electricity production at the same time many other countries such as India advanced in this field.” [2] (India has not only developed nuclear power for electricity production, but used its peaceful nuclear program as a stepping stone to develop nuclear weapons.)

Despite this initial focus on peaceful nuclear energy, at a July 4, 2006, joint meeting of the foreign affairs, Arab, defense, and national security committees of the Egyptian parliament, Dr. Hamdi Hassan, spokesperson of the Muslim Brotherhood parliamentary caucus, made clear that his organization was interested not merely in using nuclear power for meeting Egypt’s energy needs, but in creating an Egyptian nuclear deterrent: “We [Egyptians] are ready to starve in order to own a nuclear weapon that will represent a real deterrent and will be decisive in the Arab-Israeli conflict.” [3]

Reinforcing his call at the meeting for Egypt to develop nuclear arms, Hassan compared Egypt to Pakistan, which launched its nuclear weapons program soon after India conducted its first nuclear test in 1974. Addressing Egyptian Foreign Minister Mr. Abu al-Ghayth at the session, Hassan declared:
You remind me of Youssouf Wali, who said that Egypt should harvest cantaloupe instead of wheat despite the fact that wheat is a strategic and necessary commodity as are nuclear weapons...When India tested its first bomb, Pakistan did not stand still and immediately opted for nuclear weapons to protect itself. [4]
Another Muslim Brotherhood representative, Saad Al Husseyni, echoed these remarks at the joint meeting, stating that “the country [Egypt] will not have a strong diplomatic influence without a strong economy, a productive government, popular support, and a strong and deterrent military power.” [5]

Ahmed Diyyab, also member of the Muslim Brotherhood caucus, attacked the Mubarak government’s nuclear policy from a different angle at the meeting, criticizing Egypt’s traditional role in leading states in the region to press for a Middle East Weapon-of-Mass-Destruction (WMD) Free Zone: “Is it realistic and diplomatically sound,” he asked, “to demand a weapons of mass destruction-free Middle East, while being aware of the presence of a staunch enemy [Israel] who does not, at all, abide by international community decisions?” [6] By implication, his suggestion that the Mubarak government’s traditional championing of a WMD-free zone was an insufficient safeguard of Egypt’s national interest amounted to another call by the Brotherhood for Egyptian acquisition of a nuclear deterrent as a more effective alternative.

As it reached the point of openly calling for Egypt to develop a nuclear deterrent against Israel, the Brotherhood also began challenging the opposition of the Egyptian government to Iran’s acquisition of nuclear capabilities. Instead, leading figures in the Brotherhood appear to view Iranian possession of such capabilities as a benefit to the Arab world because it would serve as a counterbalance to what they perceive as Israel’s military hegemony in the region. Speaking in April 2006, the vice-spiritual guide of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Mohammed Habib, stated, “I do not see any problem with Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon.” [7] He added that, “According to nuclear deterrence theory, even if Iran has a nuclear weapon, it will be used to face the Israeli nuclear arsenal. And, this will create a form of balance between the two parties: the Arab-Islamic party on one hand and the Israeli party on the other.” [8] Mr. Habib claimed that the majority of the Egyptians share the Muslim Brotherhood’s view. He added “I believe that it is not reasonable that Israel or the Zionist entity remains the only party in the region with more than 200 nuclear warheads.” [9]

Muslim Brotherhood spokesperson Hassan underscored these concerns at the joint meeting of parliamentary committees in July 2006, expressing his “disappointment to see [the attitude of the Egyptian foreign minister] with respect to the Iranian nuclear program,” and implying that unlike the Mubarak government, the Brotherhood did not oppose Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons as a means of confronting Israel, and did not support Western efforts to pressure Iran to give it up.

Nevertheless, despite its support for Egyptian acquisition of nuclear arms, the Brotherhood’s response to Jamal Mubarak’s mid-September declaration that Egypt would restart its nuclear power program – a potential first step toward an eventual Egyptian nuclear weapon capability – was unenthusiastic. One reason for the Brotherhood’s luke warm reaction was the fear that the restart of Egypt’s nuclear power program would enhance the younger Mubarak’s prestige and facilitate his ascendancy to the Egyptian presidency after the departure of his father. Shortly after the younger Mubarak’s speech, Brotherhood vice-spiritual guide Mohammad Habib made the point explicitly, declaring, “This talk of nuclear program is only to grab the world’s attention and point it at Jamal Mubarak.” [10] Nonetheless, Habib conveyed general support for nuclear progress in Egypt, stating, “Any country should have the right to obtain nuclear technology or even nuclear arms for deterrence, especially if it is being threatened by another nuclear country.” [11]

Although, along with certain other opposition politicians, the Muslim Brotherhood fears the Mubarak government is using the nuclear program as a means for facilitating the transfer of power to Mubarak’s son, the party is unlikely to oppose to the revival of the Egyptian nuclear program. Not only does the program enjoy solid popular support on the Egyptian street, but the Muslim Brotherhood will have little choice but to support the initiative, because, as was indicated in the London-published Asharqalawsat, “politically, no one questions the rational approach of President Moubarak.” [12]

Indeed, this very reservoir of trust and reliability that Egypt enjoys vis-à-vis the Western powers, especially the United States, may provide the Muslim Brotherhood an unexpected opportunity. It is likely to support the government’s acquisition of nuclear power plants, while continuing its long-standing demand for free elections, with the hope that it may one day take power – at which time it would then enjoy the benefits of an advanced and well rounded nuclear program, while avoiding a stand-off with the international community akin to that Iran is now confronting and retaining the option to apply the program to military purposes at a future time.

For the moment, Jamal Mubarak appears to have the initiative and will likely enjoy the support of the Muslim Brotherhood as he rebuilds Egypt’s nuclear base. Indeed, the Brotherhood may press him to accelerate his plans and, perhaps, to expand the Egyptian nuclear program to incorporate research on more sensitive parts of the nuclear fuel cycle than Mubarak is currently considering.

SOURCE:  WMD Insights
H/T:  Doc's Talk

Sammy Salama, Khalid Hilal – Monterey Institute Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

[1] “Al barnamaj al intikhabi lil ikhwan al Muslemeen” [The Muslim Brotherhood election program], al-Montazah, September 26, 2006. Though technically banned from engaging in political activities in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has a strong political presence, including significant representation in the Egyptian parliament.
[2] “Salih Shalabi “Nowab al barlaman al misri yattahimoona al hukooma bittakhalli an al milaf annawawi” [Egyptian deputies accuse the government of abandoning the nuclear issue], Ikhwanonline, May 17, 2006.
[3] Hani Adel, “Noowab al ikhwan yantaqidun assiyasa al kahrijiyya wa yutaliboon bimtilak assilah annawawi [Muslim Brotherhood deputies criticize foreign policy and demand owning a nuclear weapon], Ikhwanonline,
July 5, 2006.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] “Al ikhwan al Muslemoon bimisr la yarrawna ba’ssan fi an tahooza iran silahan nawawiyyan [The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt does not see a problem in Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon], Masrawy, April 16, 2006.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Miret el-Naggar, “Egypt Developing Nuclear Energy Program,” Knight Ridder, September 27, 2006.
[11] “Coalitions of the Unwilling – The Arab world,” Economist, October 21, 2006.
[12] Samih Alrashed “Alqunbula annawawiyya al misriya” [Egyptian Nuclear Bomb], Asharqalawsat, October 1, 2006.

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