Mubarak’s Son Proposes Nuclear Program

Gamal Mubarak, the son of Egypt’s president, proposed Tuesday that his country pursue nuclear energy, drawing strong applause from the nation’s political elite, while raising expectations that Mr. Mubarak is being positioned to replace his father as president.

The carefully crafted political speech raised the prospect of two potentially embarrassing developments for the White House at a time when the region is awash in crisis: a nuclear program in Egypt, recipient of about $2 billion a year in military and development aid from the United States, and Mr. Mubarak succeeding his father, Hosni Mubarak, as president without substantial political challenge.

Simply raising the topic of Egypt’s nuclear ambitions at a time of heightened tensions over Iran’s nuclear activity was received as a calculated effort to raise the younger Mr. Mubarak’s profile and to build public support through a show of defiance toward Washington, political analysts and foreign affairs experts said.

“The whole world — I don’t want to say all, but many developing countries — have proposed and started to execute the issue of alternative energy,” he said. “It is time for Egypt to put forth, and the party will put forth, this proposal for discussion about its future energy policies, the issue of alternative energy, including nuclear energy, as one of the alternatives.”

He also said in a clear reference to the White House: “We do not accept visions from abroad that try to dissolve the Arab identity and the joint Arab efforts within the framework of the so-called Greater Middle East Initiative.”

When President Bush called for promoting democracy in the Middle East, he looked to Egypt as a leader in that effort. But with all the chaos in the region, and with the United States in need of strong allies, the administration has backed off on pressing for democracy here.

Instead, it has witnessed the country reversing earlier gains, arresting political opposition figures, beating street demonstrators, locking up bloggers, blocking creation of new political parties and postponing local elections by two years.

In his speech, Mr. Mubarak, an assistant secretary general of the governing National Democratic Party and head of its powerful policies committee, did not specify what he envisioned for a nuclear program, but there are several potential avenues.

If, for example, Egypt simply purchased nuclear fuel from abroad to power its reactors under international inspection, and then returned the spent fuel to its supplier, it would pose no significant threat of being diverted to a weapons program, nuclear experts said. The Bush administration and the Europeans have proposed a similar arrangement to solve the Iran standoff, though Iran has so far rejected that approach.

The trouble would come if Egypt, like Iran, insisted on developing the capacity to produce the fuel on its own, which would also give it the ability, theoretically, to produce weapons-grade uranium.

Many experts here welcomed Gamal Mubarak’s proposal and dismissed suggestions that it might pose a threat to the West.

“Egypt, and especially the N.D.P., is a strategic ally of the U.S.,” said Hassan Abou Taleb, an analyst with the government-financed Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “It does not seek confrontation with the U.S. over its nuclear program. Instead, it seeks cooperation. Why should the U.S. assist India in its nuclear program and not Egypt?”

Mr. Mubarak’s speech was delivered during the fourth annual party convention, presented as “New thought and a second leap toward the future.” Thematically, the party has refocused itself on bread-and-butter issues, talking about pensions, jobs and even how to promote soccer, which is a national obsession.

Both Gamal Mubarak and his father have said that he is not interested in the presidency. But political analysts said that Egypt was serious about nuclear energy and that the speech was clearly aimed at promoting the younger Mr. Mubarak. Afterward, even party members said it appeared that he would be the party’s candidate for president in 2011.

Distance from Washington and pursuit of nuclear power are two actions that could help shore up two of Gamal Mubarak’s perceived shortcomings if he were to run for president: his lack of a military background and the perception that he and his father are Washington’s lackeys. The nuclear program might help him win support among the military and the veiled criticism of Washington might help him restore some credibility with the public.

President Mubarak, 79, has said Egypt, unlike Syria, will not allow the presidency to be inherited. He was elected to a new six-year term in 2004, and that is expected to be his last. Even party members close to the son acknowledge that there are no other candidates on the horizon, either in the party or in what remains of a crushed and disorganized opposition.

“Even if we assume that Gamal Mubarak will run, what is the problem with that?” said Gamal Moussa, a district party leader. “He is an Egyptian citizen. I am one of the people who support him. He is an educated man and he is sensitive to the public. He has ideas and he is loyal to his country. If the party can get him the votes, then why can’t he run?”

Egyptians often joke about the president’s son, watching as he checks off requirements to become president. He recently visited Washington, where he was greeted by President Bush. The party insisted he had gone to the United States only to renew his pilot’s license.

With his nuclear proposal, the younger Mr. Mubarak also appears to be taking a page from the playbook of the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has turned producing nuclear energy into a matter of national pride.

Today, Egypt has no nuclear reactors for making electricity, nor the means to enrich uranium into atomic fuel. It has conducted atomic research for decades, but appears to have never pursued major programs for making reactors for power or nuclear arms, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Early last year, the agency reported “a number of failures by Egypt to report” on the history of its atomic research program, with most of the violations centering on small research facilities. Egypt has two research reactors.

For the decades ahead, atomic experts foresee strong international growth in the use of nuclear power and expect developing states like Egypt to eventually build reactors. “The N.D.P. has been discussing and deliberating the issue of developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes for about three months,” said Mr. Abou Taleb of the Ahram Center. “This is not a secret.”

Jano Charbel contributed reporting from Cairo, and William J.Broad from Vienna.

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