The New American Moment in Egypt: Taking aim at Mubarak’s nuclear program

Prior to the opening of the U.N. General Assembly in September, Hillary Clinton urged the Council on Foreign Relations to grasp the “New American Moment.” The Secretary of State specifically cited the human rights records of three countries – Egypt, Russia and China. 

Less than six months later, the streets of one of those countries – Egypt -have erupted in “spontaneous” human-rights and pro-democracy protests pre-planned and organized by the National Association for Change, led by former IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei and which includes Saad El-Katatni, parliamentary leader of the Muslim Brotherhood or Al-Ikhwal.

The architect of Washington’s new policy toward the Islamic world, Barack Obama voiced support for the rioters with his demand to the Egyptian authorities to cease blocking Twitter and Facebook, those made-in-America instruments of WMD (Westernized Mass Delusion). Now, on the 10th  anniversary year of the 9-11 attacks, the State Department and CIA are discovered to be in league with the Brotherhood, an underground network linked to suspected 9-11 hijackers. The connection between the U.S. intelligence establishment and Egypt-based extremists raises troubling questions not only about the deeper motives behind the anti-Mubarak riots but also the covert relationships that led to the destruction of the World Trade Center. 

Self-Interest not Friendship

For Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the kiss of death from the White House adds another name to the roll call of erstwhile allies who ran afoul of Washington’s fickle agenda, a list that includes the likes of Saddam Hussein, Suharto, Ferdinand Marcos, Manuel Noriega, the Shah of Iran and Ngo Dinh Diem. 

Violent overthrow, exile and assassination – under the euphemisms of “people power” and “color revolutions” – certainly are not the kindest way to end a longtime relationship. Then again, in the words of that Cold Warrior John Foster Dulles, later plagiarized by Henry Kissinger: “The United States doesn’t have friends; it has interests.”

When told to step aside, a sensible puppet – not always the same as a dummy – follows the strings off stage. Otherwise the strings are cut. In secret liaisons, the CIA has handed the razor to the Muslim Brotherhood. As stated by Bruce Riedel, a former CIA agent at the Brookings Institution who advises Obama on Mideast issues: “Living with it (the Brotherhood) won’t be easy, but it should not be seen as inevitably our enemy.” Fait accompli. Forget 9-11.

The offense committed by America’s deposed or murdered allies was to actually believe themselves to be the all-powerful dictator portrayed in the Western media. The common element in their downfall and disgrace was a misguided longing for personal glory, which each somehow confused for national sovereignty.(Or is it the other way around?) Where and when exactly did Hosni Mubarak go wrong in American eyes?

Sadat’s Long Shadow

From the moment that Mubarak saw his mentor President Anwar Sadat gunned down in 1981 at a military parade by soldiers affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, the astute politician  has played ball with the U.S and Israel. A fast learner, he kept his head low, enforced peace with Israel, curbed overzealous Palestinians, suppressed Muslim anger against Coptic Christians, and humbly took billions in U.S. aid. 

His regime could make these extraordinary and often humiliating compromises with Egypt’s historic enemies because of the legacy of Sadat, the only Arab leader to soundly whip the Israelis on the battlefield. The Yom Kippur War of 1973 fell short of total victory for the Egyptian side only because of the threat of U.S. intervention and Gen. Ariel Sharon’s decision to counterattack during the Washington-brokered ceasefire. Despite repeated demands by young Egyptian officers for a second Yom Kippur assault against an impudent foe, Mubarak has kept the peace as stipulated in the Camp David Accords, Sadat’s other great achievement.

For the president’s inner circle, intense political pressures arose from Israel’s relentless expansion of settlements on Palestinian territory and the two American-led invasions of Iraq, where Baathist ideology was based on the pan-Arab nationalism of Egypt’s first president, Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The West’s ideal of democracy always been curtailed in the Mideast by its need for compliant regimes that could ensure the export of cheap petroleum via Western oil companies. Another major problem for democratic transition can be summed up by: Democracy for who? Left-leaning Arab nationalists or conservative Islamicists? Instead of promoting parliamentary power-sharing, Britain, the U.S. and Israel have always promoted a “divide-and-rule” policy, tilting against one side and then against the other. A strong democracy in the Middle East, with public control over national energy resources, would be quite costly for the West. Empty talk, along with aid to dictatorships, is therefore a lot cheaper. 

The hopes for a Western-style parliamentary system now rests on Tunisia. Under the Ben Ali regime, left-leaning unions were tolerated to a large extent as a bulwark against Islamic extremists, providing a basis of hope for Tunisian democracy. In Egypt with its growing informal economy and large non-industrial sector, however, radicalized lower middle-class youths have tended to join the main underground opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood. 

In Lebanon Victory for the Bold

Mubarak’s biggest irritant has been the domestic proponents of shariah law, the Muslim Brotherhood, which increasingly fell under the influence of the confrontation-oriented Hamas and Hezbollah.  Cairo’s strident opposition to Iran and its client groups was seen a huge positive for continued American financial aid to Mubarak, while his deep misgivings over civilian casualties in Iraq were brushed aside by the West.

If the former CIA operative Osama bin Laden, aka Tim Osman, was once known as “America’s boy”; then Hosni Mubarak could be called “Washington’s uncle”, that is, until he reached a breaking point. .

The Second Lebanon War of 2006 was the watershed event for Mubarak. His initial instinct was to lambaste Hezbollah, and its fiery leader Mullah Hassan Nasrullah for “adventurism that does not serve Arab interests” and for sectarianism that encourages “the Shiites to be loyal to Iran and not to the countries they are living in.”

As the Israeli airstrikes took their toll in civilian lives, the Egyptian public including military officers, demanded military mobilization against Israel. Mubarak pulled the reins: “Those who urge Egypt to go to war to defend Lebanon or Hezbollah are not aware that the time of exterior adventures is over.” So much for Sadat.

Without any assistance from the Arab world’s most powerful army, Hezbollah held its lines and rained rockets down on Israeli settlements to eventually  impose a humiliating draw against the aggressors. Mullah Nasrullah could rightfully claim the mantle of Sadat as the Arab people’s leading warrior, reducing Mubarak to the status of a pretender.

The Nuclear Options

Other than a full-scale conventional war, the sole means left for Egypt to restrain Israel from launching military attacks on Arab territories is nuclear deterrence. The deep shame from failing to intervene in the Lebanon War prompted Mubarak’s renewed campaign to develop a nuclear capability and an arsenal of ballistic missiles. 

In hindsight, the repeated calls by Egypt and Iran for a “nuclear-free Mideast” since 1974 failed to sway Tel Aviv to reduce its strategic arsenal. Mohamed Elbaradei, a New York University-educated lawyer whose father was a liberal pro-Western opponent of Nasser, has been the leading voice pushing for nuclear disarmament by Iran and Israel. His record as IAEA bureaucrats is one of failed idealism and pointless rhetoric.

Most of Israel’s missiles remain targeted on Egypt’s densely populated cities, a fact that completely justifies Cairo’s drive for deterrence. The Egyptian atomic energy program has its roots in the Nasser era, when a small Russian reactor was installed for research purposes. Just before his assassination in 1981, Sadat brought Egypt into the Non-Proliferation Treaty on a limited basis, leaving the possibility for independent fuel reprocessing. At the level of planning and research, Egyptian nuclear scientists continued to make slow progress but their weapons-development options were severely constricted without any operational reactors.

The political fallout from the Lebanon War finally kick-started a determined drive for nuclear power. At a September 2006 conference of the ruling National Democratic Party, the president’s son Gamal Mubarak called for Egypt to pursue a nuclear program. By the following spring, Energy Minister Hassan Younis announced plans to build 10 nuclear plants. Plans for at least one of those facilities was for a heavy-water plant that could produce raw material for weapons-grade fuel. 

Since then, the Mubarak government has signed initial accords for plant construction and equipment with China and Russia – the two other countries, along with Egypt, denounced by Hillary Clinton for “human-rights violations”. The U.S. corporation Bechtel and the South Korean nuclear authority also sought contracts, perhaps to glean inside information on behalf of the Western intelligence agencies.

Towards a Trinity of Deterrence

In an AP interview in 2009, Egyptian Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit outlined the Arab strategic predicament, saying that Israel and Iran are two nuclear players, “one on the Mediterranean and the other on the Gulf . . . . You have a land mass of Arab countries and Arab people that do not feel at ease in that setting.”

A strategic trinity of deterrence between Israel, Iran and Egypt is now the only means of maintaining secure borders between the three blocs. The threat of nuclear terrorism is remote considering the vital  importance of nuclear controls for each side. For the rest of the world, the regional deterrence triangle would prevent any local exchange of fire from engulfing the great powers – the U.S., Russia and China – in a worldwide nuclear conflagration. 

Strict limits on the number and size of warheads, the scale of missile forces, authorized targets and no-strike zones, and pacts against first-strike launches could hold each nuclear arsenal to the bare minimum needed to prevent invasions or preemptive attacks. The long-term danger comes from the lack of such a regional structure and system of nuclear limits and controls.

Belatedly, in 2008, the U.S. government for the first time listed Israel as an undeclared nuclear state in a list drafted by Rose Gottemoeller, Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Verification and Compliance. This late recognition shows that Washington has lacked a realpolitik approach to regional deterrence, while it stubbornly clings to its eroding superpower status.

The Obama-Kissinger proposal for total nuclear disarmament, unveiled in 2009 in time for the Nobel Peace Prize, is yet another one of those “too little, too late” initiatives and simply too idealistic in a multipolar world of hardball geopolitics. Whatever its no-nukes rhetoric, Washington is powerless to disarm Tel Aviv’s nuclear arsenal nor will the U.S. commit to a nuclear umbrella over Egypt or the rest of the Arab world in event of an Israeli invasion.

When reluctant allies fail to respond to one-sided disarmament (with its consequent national suicide) the CIA then initiates covert destabilization and regime change, as happened to former President Pervez Musharraf, who refused to surrender Pakistan’s so-called “Islamic bomb.” With its latest tilt in Mideast policy, Washington is, a decade after 9-11, embracing the Muslim Brotherhood ‘s deadly vendetta with Egypt’s strongman, now that he has finally come to his senses. In this light, the Wikileaks release of the Palestinian papers can be seen as political blackmail directed not only against Mahmoud Abbas but also against his main benefactor, Hosni Mubarak.

As for the legacy of Hosni Mubarak, his mistake – possibly a fatal one – was his long reluctance to establish a full-scale nuclear program. Instead of conceding to American, European and Israeli pressure, Egypt could have possessed the nuclear capability to prevent the horrific airstrikes against Gaza in 2008-09.

The Egyptian people, the Arab world and the international community respect the real power that can enforce peace, not just wishes and words about peace. Right or wrong, great leaders are judged by their actions and not by their compromises. Mubarak’s main enemy today is not the CIA-inspired rioters, the Israeli war machine or American demands for compliance – it is lost time, the ticking down of each and every precious second. The ancient pharoahs, even the obscure ones, could rest easy knowing their images would be preserved in stone, but for modern-day presidents the sands are running out. 


Author: Yoichi Shimatsu, former Japan Times Weekly, the 4th Media Senior Advisor, a Hong Kong-based journalist, covered the rise of Islamic militancy in the North African Magreb region for the Japan Times Weekly

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