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Biological Last updated: February, 2013

Public claims that Egypt has an active biological warfare (BW) program have circulated since Egyptian officials made two statements about BW in 1972. After these statements, Egypt has been regularly discussed as a likely possessor of an offensive BW capability. However, despite the regular inclusion of Egypt in lists of BW possessor nations, very little, if any, data exists that compellingly, or indeed convincingly, supports allegations of an Egyptian BW program. Most available open-source data pertaining to the possibility of such a program is highly speculative and uncorroborated, lacking independent confirmation.

The starting point for most discussions of Egyptian BW capabilities is a statement made by then-president Anwar Sadat in February 1972 at a meeting of the Arab Socialist Union National Congress. Answering a question about an Egyptian response to a hypothetical Israeli BW attack Sadat stated: "The only reply to biological warfare is that we too should use biological warfare. ... Briefly, we have the instruments of biological warfare in the refrigerators and we will not use them unless they [Israel] begin to use them."[1]

Sadat's statement indicated an assumption that the most effective deterrent to the use of biological weapons is the threat of an equivalent response. Although Sadat did not make clear what sort of capability Egypt possessed, the most literal interpretation of his statement would be that at a minimum Egypt had a stock of pathogenic cultures stored at a research institute. Sadat's statement did not allude to the possession of deliverable biological weapons. His comments were not widely reported outside of Egypt, and two months later, in April 1972, Egypt signed the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC). There was one further statement in 1972 alluding to the existence of an Egyptian BW capability, this time by the Minister of the Interior. In June, he stated that "the enemy," presumably Israeli officials, would never use BW because they are aware that Egypt has "adequate means of retaliating without delay."[2] Both of these statements came during a period during which Egypt was attempting to re-equip its military as a prelude to resuming its war with Israel, which had temporarily subsided after an Egyptian defeat in 1970.[3] It is possible that the Egyptian government felt the need to make a series of statements that could have a deterrent effect against Israel.

Through the remainder of the 1970s and into the 1980s there was no significant public discussion of Egyptian BW capabilities though attention was frequently drawn to Egypt's suspected chemical warfare (CW) capabilities. Beginning in 1989, Egypt began to be mentioned as a possible possessor of biological weapons, especially in public testimony by U.S. government officials, but these public statements were cautious and did not offer any details. In 1993, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service released a significant new report stating that "Egypt has a program of military-applied research in the sphere of biological weapons, but no data has been obtained on the creation of biological agents in the interests of military offensive programs."[4] The report did not specify the nature of the military-applied research; moreover, the report implied that Egypt had not produced BW agents or weapons systems.

In the mid-1990s, the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) issued a series of reports on compliance with international arms control treaties. These reports regularly noted that "the United States believes that Egypt had developed biological warfare agents by 1972. There is no evidence to indicate that Egypt had eliminated this capability and it remains likely that the Egyptian capability to conduct biological warfare continues to exist."[5] This statement did not allude to any new evidence since 1972 suggesting the existence of a BW program, nor did it provide evidence of any ongoing BW activities. The ACDA reports only alluded to the existence of an undefined BW capability. In contrast to the ACDA reports, documents on proliferation released to the public by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Department of Defense (DOD) made absolutely no mention of Egypt in the context of BW.

Western and Israeli sources continue to occasionally report that Egypt is developing an illicit BW program and has worked extensively on defensive BW efforts. These reports, which are often vague, tend not to offer any new information or provide any supporting evidence. Furthermore these reports frequently conflate discussions of offensive and defensive BW and CW programs and capabilities, thus creating the potential for confusion.[6] These reports, especially those alleging offensive BW efforts, have become less frequent since the mid-1990s, a change that could result from several different causes, including new intelligence, a reevaluation of existing intelligence, an unwillingness to discuss Egyptian proliferation issues, or even a simple lack of concern over Egyptian capabilities.

Egypt signed the BWC in 1972, but has steadfastly refused to ratify the treaty. In some quarters, Egypt's failure to ratify the BWC has been taken as a sign that the country maintains a covert BW capability. Although it has not ratified the Convention, Egyptian officials regularly attend, as observers, BWC meetings and discussions, including working groups and review conferences. When discussing the BWC, Egyptian officials generally make a point of expressing their support for the convention's goals. At the same time, they emphasize that Egypt's ongoing refusal to ratify the BWC is a political position based on concerns over Israel's nuclear weapons arsenal and the Israeli refusal to sign the BWC.

Egypt does have basic biotechnology infrastructure that could serve as a potential base for a covert BW program. As a developing nation with a strong agricultural and health services sector, Egypt conducts research on a host of diseases and pathogens that affect both humans and crops. In its sixth five-year plan covering the period 2007-2012, Egypt indicated that it planned to allocate $5.1 billion for upgrading medical services, of which $800 million will be used to upgrade research centers with modern equipment. Although this new equipment has the potential to enhance Egyptian capabilities in the biological sciences there are no indications that any of it will be used for research on BW-related projects. The Egyptian government anticipates this field to grow significantly in the next few years, and since 1998 its five-year plans have highlighted the significance of scientific development and allocated resources to upgrade scientific research facilities across the country.

From time to time, it has been asserted that Egypt operates large scale dual-use facilities outside Cairo that support its alleged covert BW program. According to some experts, Egypt conducts research on various bacteria, viruses, and toxins including pathogens causing Rift Valley fever, encephalitis, and mycotoxicosis but there is no evidence to link any such research to a clandestine BW program.[7]

To a significant degree, current assessments of Egyptian capabilities in the area of offensive BW appear to be predicated on the assumption that activities and capabilities suspected or known to exist in the early 1970s have continued. On the basis of this presumption, Egyptian efforts to modernize or expand its biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries are seen as confirming or even increasing its BW capabilities.

Pending the release of new information from classified sources or archives the evidence supporting the existence of an Egyptian BW program consists of two statements made in 1972. To a significant degree, current assessments of Egyptian capabilities in the area of offensive BW appear to be predicated on the assumption that activities and capabilities suspected or known to exist in the early 1970s have continued. On the basis of this presumption, Egyptian efforts to modernize or expand its biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries are seen as confirming or even increasing its BW capabilities. At the same time, Egyptian officials regularly state that Egypt does not possess or seek to obtain biological weapons.

Sources:
[1] Julian Perry Robinson, The Problem of Chemical and Biological Warfare: Volume II: CB Weapons Today (Stockholm: SIPRI, 1973), p. 241.
[2] Ibid.
[3] This conflict was the "war of attrition" initiated by Egypt in 1969 and ending in partial defeat in 1970. The war was an attempt to reassert Egyptian control over that part of its territory bordering the Suez Canal while pressing Israeli forces to withdraw from the canal's east bank. The war was also an effort to reassert Egypt's military credibility in the wake of its crushing defeat in June 1967.
[4] Russian Foreign Intelligence Service Report: Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction, FBIS Document JPRS-TND-93-007, 5 March 1993, p. 48. [translation of Moscow Novyy Vyzov Posle "Kholodnoy Voyny": Rasprostraneniye Oruzhiya Massovogo Unichtozheniya in Russian, 1993, p. 1-118.]
[5] Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control Agreements (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1995), p. 15; Arms Control and Disarmament Agency Annual Report, Section VII: Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control Agreements (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1996).
[6] These discussions are further complicated by the frequent practice of combining allegations of chemical and biological weapons possession in the same statements making it difficult to determine if charges of development, possession or even deployment apply equally to both weapons classes or only one of these.
[7] Although he reaches a different conclusion regarding Egypt's alleged BW program Dany Shoham provides a useful summation of public claims regarding Egyptian BW activities. Dany Shoham, "Chemical and Biological Weapons in Egypt," The Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 5 (3), pp. 54-56, http://cns.miis.edu.

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This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents.

Get the Facts on Egypt

  • Not a member of the BTWC or the CWC
  • Used chemical weapons during the 1960s conflict in North Yemen
  • Maintains two nuclear research reactors