JUST OVER A MONTH after Gamal Mubarak announced that the country’s nuclear-energy program was to be restarted after 20 years in the dark, the international nuclear energy and weapons-safety advocacy group Pugwash is getting set to host its annual Conference on Science and World Affairs in Cairo. Shane McNeil digs into what to expect out of the summit.

Originally appeared in Egypt Today Magazine’s November, 2006 issue. 

It is the first time the prestigious conference, scheduled to run November 10-15, is being held in the Middle East. Representatives from nuclear and non-nuclear countries are slated to discuss safety issues and how to create a nuclear-weapons-free Middle East, among other issues.

Pugwash has a long and respected history of working for peaceful resolutions to world issues; the group was recognized with a Nobel Peace Prize in 1995.

While Egypt discusses the fall-out from Mubarak’s announcement and what it means for the country’s economic future, debate raged on at the United Nations over North Korea and Iran’s nuclear activities. North Korea is still weathering a storm of criticism for its nuclear weapons test on October 9 that ultimately resulted in a set of strict sanctions from the United Nations.

Iran, meanwhile, is not completely out of the woods — it faces the possibility of similar sanctions if it fails to co-operate with international nuclear inspectors. In light of these events, it seems the timing and location of the Pugwash conference couldn’t be better.

Pugwash council member Dr. Mohamed Kadry Said, a military and technology expert at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, lobbied hard for the conference to be held in Cairo, believing that the time is right.

“Ten years ago, a conference in the region wouldn’t have been worthwhile because the nuclear issue was not as hot as it is now,” he says. “We can consider all the options: to solve the Iranian issue peacefully or to strike — and the same with Egypt. Will they take the same path as the Iranians? Or will they co-operate with the United States and other countries to form a project?”

With the volume of international pressure Iran now faces to be transparent about its program, it is surprising that the government would decide to announce any nuclear intentions at this moment. It’s true that Egypt does need to explore alternative energy resources, but the decision introduces a whole new debate over why it chose to go nuclear when it might better benefit from harnessing the natural abundance of solar energy or further developing hydroelectric energy.

The government maintains that the nuclear program is for peaceful means only, but outsiders warn that promises may not be enough.

“Egypt can’t make the same mistakes as Israel and Iran,” says Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, a top global security watchdog organization. “They need to take a wide-open road to nuclear energy. If Egypt re-affirms that they want to use the energy for peaceful means and prove it in their actions, then the reaction will be much different than recent reactions and they’ll meet less resistance on an international level.”

Said, however, doesn’t foresee Egypt getting the same treatment as Iran, which has taken a highly secretive stance on its nuclear program.

“I don’t think Egypt will do something under the table,” he says. “They will invite countries to come to them and to work with them.”

All this debate has simply provided more fodder for discussion at the Pugwash gathering, which had been scheduled long before Mubarak’s announcement. “The beautiful thing about Pugwash [is] that we can gather people together like Israel and Palestine or the USA and Iraq that have poor relations or are fighting each other — disoriented people — and get them to work on solutions,” he says.

Israel, which will neither confirm nor deny its reportedly sizeable stockpile of nuclear arms, is slated to attend Pugwash.

Each Pugwash conference focuses not only on global issues, but also pays special attention to those most pertinent to the host country and its surrounding region. So while the conference will focus on the core issues of the Middle East (such as the plenary entitled ‘Prospects for Iraq’) and international concerns (such as the ‘Peace Process in Kashmir, Lesson Learned’), the conference’s agenda has been changed to incorporate recent events.

Egyptian observers will have an opportunity to debate and explore the best possible options as to how to get the country’s nuclear program up and running once again at the ‘Energy Security: Technology, Options and Regional Cooperation’ discussion.

The conference will be held amid mounting concern about a new arms race. Following North Korea’s test, Japan has reportedly started considering nuclear options. The IAEA states that 30 countries possess the capability to produce nuclear energy, and Turkey and Saudi Arabia have also said they would explore nuclear power.

At least 20 of those 32 countries are believed to be technologically capable of building a nuclear device.

“There need to be consistent standards for nuclear power,” Kristensen says. “How do you behave? What are the norms?”

Kristensen thinks the conference’s location gives it a natural advantage, saying, “people will always look at conferences that are held in the Middle East with interest, but if in some form it shapes the standards of nuclear energy or nuclear weapons, then people will start to look at them a lot closer.”

Either way, Egypt must be careful as it moves forward, Kristensen cautions. “Nuclear power comes with a bill attached to it. To me, this sounds like a bad investment.”