Egypt & the future of the Middle East WMDFZ

What happens when the regional leader in WMD Free Zone talks suddenly undergoes a volatile regime change?

For years, Egypt, driven by a desire to avoid the insecurity and perceived imbalances that would stem from nuclear weapons proliferation, has been a strong advocate for a weapons of mass destruction free zone (WMDFZ) in the Middle East. After the 2010 NPT Action Plan assigned a deadline and initiated the appointment of a Facilitator to the process, the creation of the WMDFZ seemed feasible. Regional states (with Egypt at the forefront), the co-sponsoring states (UK, US, and Russia), and the Facilitator’s team began working towards a conference by the end of 2012 in Helsinki to start discussing the terms of such an agreement. However, the 2012 deadline came and passed with no sign yet of that conference materializing, optimism is starting to wane.

Mohammed Morsi’s removal from power by the Egyptian military in early July, and the subsequent civil unrest across the country, will undoubtedly impact Egypt’s ability to focus on foreign policy interests, as policy-makers’ attention will be drawn towards domestic issues. Egyptian diplomats, may attempt to continue to push the regional WMDFZ process forward, but it will not be an easy task. They will need solid political backing to make any meaningful progress.

However, we may find that they have more room to maneuver on this issue than might first appear. Interim Vice President, Mohamed El-Baradei, is an expert in the world of nuclear policy as head of the IAEA from 1997-2009. His efforts to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy earned him a Nobel Prize in 2005. Egypt’s new Foreign Minister, Nabil Fahmy, formerly the country’s Ambassador responsible for disarmament policy, has been a leading force in the nuclear non-proliferation community. Since leaving his post as Ambassador in 2008, Fahmy was appointed the non-resident chair of the Middle East Project in the James Martin Center for Non-Proliferation Studies where he actively spoke about Egypt’s changing political climate and the implications for the NPT negotiations slated to resume in 2012. As founding Dean of the School of Public Affairs at the American University in Cairo, Fahmy has been a vociferous proponent of regional participation in the NPT. With a leadership that holds strong backgrounds in non-proliferation and energy security there should be no lack of support for a WMD free zone if the issue arises in the upcoming months.

At this stage it is hard to tell how the domestic political environment in Egypt will shape up and where the real spheres of influence will lie. However, with senior positions being occupied by strong advocates for progress on the nuclear weapons agenda, it seems likely that we will see greater continuity in Egypt’s nuclear diplomacy effort from one government to another than we might expect. To hope that foreign policy might prove to be a unifier between the warring factions would be unrealistic. But both the left-leaning interim government and the spurned Muslim Brotherhood share a similar approach on these matters, as foreign policy changed little between Mubarak’s and Morsi’s regimes, even as they disagree over domestic issues. Morsi’s regime attempted a careful but assertive non-proliferation diplomatic effort. While the tactics and broader political pitch may change, the core policy may well survive into the new government.

The way in which Egypt’s domestic situation will play out still remains unknown, and raises the question of whether another leader within the Arab League would step in to support Egypt in championing the WMDFZ cause during this period of change. Many Arab states are still preoccupied with the after effects of the Arab Spring – including, in some cases, suffering ongoing violent civil unrest. The Gulf States, however, have been strong supporters of the global nuclear non-proliferation agenda and regional WMDFZ, as well as of Egypt’s recent regime change. Given their current political and financial stability, they are arguably in a prime position to show leadership on the issue. Furthermore their combined contribution of B to aid Egypt’s economy days after Morsi’s removal from power may be an indication of their support for a quick reemergence of a strong, stable region. The majority of the Gulf States are also members of the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), a series of international treaties and protocols prohibiting the transfer of weapons of mass destruction, and their related materials. Their longstanding support of a WMDFZ stems from a desire for equal treatment under international norms in the interest of regional security, and this could drive them to take greater role in the process (see BASIC’s conference report from our roundtable on nuclear non-proliferation in the Gulf, March 2013 for more information).

Only time will tell how Egyptian domestic politics will truly affect the regional WMDFZ, and what—if any–role other Arab states will have to fill. What is clear is that without regional leadership, there is a risk that the WMDFZ process could further stall and any momentum gained before 2012 would be lost. We need to continue working with Egypt and with our partners across the Middle East region to encourage continued progress, and to ensure that the prospect of a WMD free zone, and the resulting stability it would bring to the region, is not lost.

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