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The Evolution of Chemical and Biological Weapons
in Egypt

Dany Shoham

Policy Paper No. 46, 1998 


Being the pioneering Arab country to possess chemical and biological weapons (CBW), Egypt employed CW for the first time in 1963 in Yemen, shortly after having procured them, and proceeded to employ them there until 1967. For a lengthy period of time, until recently, Egypt has persistently denied this evidently continual use of CW against unprotected civilians, far beyond its own land. Ever since the 1960s Egypt has concomitantly been trying to build up a nuclear infrastructure for military purposes. This effort has continued beyond the 1960s, but has turned out to be abortive, whereas a parallel effort to develop BW has been fruitful.

The outcome of that situation has been an increasing conceptual trend favoring the upgrade of CBW, provided that nuclear armament remains unattainable. Though never declared officially and definitively, this concept has become a fundamental doctrine, as clearly reflected and implied over many years in statements, expressions and moves made by various Egyptian strategists. Moreover, the rationale, argumentation and incentives substantiating the validity of this doctrine are evident:

  • Egypt’s assessment of a threat posed by Israel, which is believed to have CBW and nuclear offensive capability altogether;
  • Egypt’s awareness of the increasing proliferation of CBW within the Arab world, at times regarded as a menace, at times as a challenge, that ought to be balanced;
  • Egypt’s will to maintain and strengthen, at any rate, its position as the leading Arab state, strategically and militarily;
  • Egypt’s recognition of the value and significance of CBW, strategically and militarily;
  • Egypt’s existing technological capacity for sustaining and enhancing its CBW capabilities;
  • Egypt’s adherence to the position held by the four Arab states possessing CBW (namely itself plus Syria, Libya and Iraq), that is – refraining from joining the CWC.

All in all, and bearing in mind the background of Egypt’s immense and unprecedented current financial expenditures on everything concerning its conventional military strength, it would be very unreasonable to assume that Egypt’s military strength does not include any more, the cardinal component of non-conventional arms, namely CBW, as claimed obstinately by Egyptian top leadership. In effect, the possibility that Egypt has abandoned the strategic element of CBW is but hypothetical. In realistic terms, Egypt is the sort of country which ought to show what has actually been the fate of the CBW it has accumulated, rather than just declaring it does not possess them.

And indeed, the most significant milestones marking the de-facto CBW-related activities of Egypt considerably corroborate this conclusion. Those milestones are the following:

  • Increasing development and production of CBW after the Six Day War (1967) and particularly towards the Yom Kippur War (1973);
  • Supplying Syria with CW while jointly preparing strategically to launch the surprise attack against Israel in 1973;
  • Scaling up the extent of development and production of CBW after the Yom Kippur War;
  • Forming a profound strategic-technological cooperation with Iraq, mainly aimed at the procurement of long range ballistic missiles carrying CB warheads, in the late 1970s;
  • Reorganizing the system involved in CBW development and production in Egypt, so as largely to camouflage the actual military-oriented activities taking place, in the early 1980s;
  • Tightening the cooperation with Iraq, particularly in Iraq, in the development and manufacturing of CBW, in conjunction with advanced long range ballistic missiles, during the 1980s;
  • Renewing the facilities for nerve gas production and enhancing the essentials of BW-related infrastructure during the 1980s;
  • Increasing the involvement in international forums preparing the CWC, thus forming an image of a country unequivocally favoring the elimination of CW, during the late 1980s;
  • Establishing and maintaining an Arab block, composed of the four CBW Arab possessors, that refrains from joining the CWC, during the 1990s;
  • Concurrently – expanding CW-oriented activities, while at the same time denying any activity concerned with or having CBW.

The described profile of activities is clearly compatible with the consistent Egyptian concept that the elimination of CBW should necessarily be linked with the elimination of Israeli nuclear weapons. Egypt would in all probability stick to that concept, so as to avoid any CBW inspection in Egypt and to try pressuring Israel to join a nuclear disarmament agreement.

In practice, Egypt accomplished a fairly broad CBW program, operating two large dual-use factories, bordering each other and located near Cairo, on the desert-front, as well as a variety of scattered dual-use supporting facilities. Egypt has thus been able to accumulate considerable operational quantities of the chemical warfare agents phosgene, sulphuric and nitrous mustard, sarin, VX and psychotomimetic glycolates. The delivery systems for these chemical agents include mines, artillery shells, rockets, aerial bombs and surface-to-surface missiles.

The Egyptian BW program included various candidate biological warfare agents: germs, viruses, fungi and toxins. It appears that the prominent ones were the germs causing plague and anthrax, viruses causing encephalitis and Rift Valley fever, and toxins causing botulism and mycotoxicosis.

These pathogens and toxins, and possibly other ones, have been researched into and probably upgraded as biological warfare agents by Egypt alone and partially together with Iraq. Aerial bombs and especially ballistic missiles carrying biological warheads are apparently the principal delivery systems for biological warfare agents. The considerable current effort made by Egypt in the field of ballistic missiles includes CB warheads, and by now Egypt plausibly already possesses such weapon systems. Needless to say – that level of armament may provide the maximum strategic strength of CBW. Egypt is certainly aware of, seeking, and capable of attaining it.

Nevertheless, Egypt persistently denies having CBW. On only some rare occasions, has Egypt disclosed the existence of its CBW stockpiles, seemingly when it found it of paramount importance to take an acute posture of deterrence towards Israel – before, during and after the Yom Kippur War.

Moreover, in spite of its prolonged and profound involvement in Iraq’s CBW activities during the 1980s, Egypt has not been of much help to the UN inspectors dealing with Iraq’s capabilities. Furthermore, in the meantime Egypt is covertly collaborating with Libya, Syria and possibly Iraq again, in the sphere of CBW. Apparently, it is but a matter of time until this collaboration would evolve into a concrete strategic cooperation between these countries (not mentioning Iran), bringing about a quantum leap in the Middle-East CBW profile of intensification. Notably, the long and desolate Egyptian-Libyan border may facilitate clandestine interactions between the two countries, while Libya is, additionally, singular in having strong bonds with each of Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan.

Egypt constitutes that sort of a developing country whose domestic technological capacity is sufficient to enable absorption of external complementary technologies needed for both developing, producing, maintaining and upgrading CBW. Egypt’s positive international position and image have long facilitated such absorption. Thus, Egypt was assisted – in terms of know-how, materials and equipment – by formerly Eastern Bloc countries, as well as from companies and institutions in the USA, Germany, Britain, France, Switzerland, Hungary, India, North Korea and others, not necessarily through governmental channels. Besides, the diminishing gap between Egypt and other Arab countries – mostly friendly ones, if not allied – in terms of CBW capabilities, brings about further vital absorption (reciprocally), and elevated strategic cooperation.

Hence, Egypt may provide a typical example of a supposedly mild country, marked by an acute gap between its image and its accumulating military capabilities, both conventional and non-conventional. As a matter of fact, all of the prevailing conditions, as described, encourage it to retain, to say the least, its CBW, and that is how Egypt acts. Moreover, deducing from the present trends of mass destruction weapons’ proliferation in the Middle East, one may estimate that Egypt would scarcely avoid this process. Paradoxically, the anticipated forming of an Islamic or Arabic nuclear umbrella, involving primarily Iran or Iraq, would probably accelerate the proliferation of CBW within Arab countries, including Egypt, due to their calculating that the risk of a nuclear counter-strike as a retaliation consequent to the use of CBW is largely reduced, and each being willing to absorb a CBW counter-strike alone. Yet, even beyond that level of readiness, Egypt improves its preparedness for non-conventional warfare, as also reflected in its announcement about exercises demonstrating its capacity to absorb nuclear attack. All in all, the threshold of CBW attainment and employment could thereby be lowered considerably. Thus, Egypt’s current inclination to establish a Middle East totally free of all weapons of mass destruction, mainly nuclear weapons and particularly the nuclear weapons attributed to Israel, may be, at some stage, reevaluated by Egypt and take a new shape, formally or practically; namely Egypt may thereby reorient itself, overtly or covertly, with regard to the whole complex of non-conventional weaponry proliferation and utility in the Middle East. In that sense, the near future may provide a crossroads of paramount importance. 

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