In a dramatic act that signalled its frustration with the “unilateral postponement” of an agreed 2012 Conference on the Middle East, Ambassador Hisham Badr announced his delegation’s walk-out “to protest this unacceptable and continuous failure to implement the 1995 Middle East Resolution” and “send a strong message of dissatisfaction with the lack of seriousness in dealing with the issue of establishing a zone free of nuclear weapons, a central component of regional, Arab and Egyptian national security, which impacts directly international peace and security”.
Amid mounting frustration, the walk-out occurred towards the end of the debate on the Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction (MEWMDFZ) on Monday afternoon, 29 April 2013. Though diplomats from the Arab States were initially as taken aback as the rest of the Conference, the walk-out did not come as a big surprise. Badr had reminded delegates that the Arab Group had seriously considered “whether we should be attending this meeting in the first place”.
At issue is not only an important commitment for a regional conference that has not been convened at the designated time; there are deep differences of view about the nature of the regional challenges and how to utilise such a conference. Different stakeholders seem to want it to be a stick, a catch-all solution, a confidence-building tool, a one-off meeting, part of an ongoing process, a step towards negotiations, or even a reluctantly agreed nuisance to be cleared out of the way as soon as possible. In this volatile mix there are national security interests and domestic expectations; regional human rights and security challenges; real worries and a great deal of covert obstructionism and political grand-standing.
For many Arab and Non-Aligned states, Israel is the main problem, with its “undeclared” nuclear arsenal outside the NPT. Iran’s nuclear programme is also a major anxiety but one they seldom admit to openly. For the Americans and most of the Western allies, Iran is the NPT’s biggest problem, while Syria’s non accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and suspected chemical weapons use has been ratcheted up the agenda by the raging, bloody war. Though they seldom acknowledge it publicly, many Western officials also regard Israel’s opaque nuclear policies as an intractable problem that undermines the NPT, and many also think that Israel’s occupation of Palestine and treatment of the Palestinians is a major obstacle to its own peace and security in the region.
Iran of course tries to blame Israel for everything and divert attention from its own uranium enrichment programme, which raises persistent international concerns that Tehran wants to have a nuclear weapons option for the future. Apart from the familiar tirade against Israel, Ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh sought to reassure by highlighting the words of Ayatollah Khamenei to NAM heads of state in August 2012: “Nuclear Weapons neither ensure security, nor do they consolidate political power, rather they are a threat to both security and political power…. The Islamic republic of Iran considers the use of nuclear, chemical and similar weapons as a great and unforgivable sin.”
With all sides in the NPT blaming each other, and a nuclear-armed state outside the room free-riding on the nonproliferation regime as long as its Western allies provide sufficient cover, the proposal for the 2012 Conference has so far failed in its primary purpose - to provide a practical mechanism for regional dialogue and to pave the way for a WMD free zone in the Middle East.
First to speak was Ambassador Jaakko Laajava, the Finnish Facilitator appointed after much wrangling, 18 months after the NPT decision. He had scheduled the conference for Helsinki in December 2012, but after a year of indefatigable consultations with individual governments and various groups and combinations, he was unable to get all states to the table. Though Iran announced its participation late in the day, Israel remained reluctant, so the designated convenors (the UN Secretary General and the NPT depositary states, Russia, the United Kingdom and United States) decided to postpone. While acknowledging that many states had asked for a new date to be set in 2013, Laajava had little to offer except “multilateral consultations” and further “preparations”. UK Ambassador Jo Adamson read a brief statement on behalf of the co-convenors, which did little more than express repeated confidence in Laajava. Indeed, the praise was so fulsome in some speeches that it began to sound a little hollow.
The reasons for Egypt’s walk out were underpinned in this and other statements, particularly from the United States. Thomas Countryman, US Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation, acknowledged that postponing the Conference constituted a “major disappointment” but stressed that “this was not a breach of the  Action Plan as some suggest”. Most Arab states disagree, sharing Egypt’s assertion that “the breach of the 2010 Action Plan's clear decision to hold a Conference in 2012 is yet another failure to implement a key NPT commitment”. Reiterating the history of the 2010 commitment, Badr characterised the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East as "an essential element of the 1995 Conference and of the basis on which the Treaty was indefinitely extended without a vote in 1995" and declared “we cannot wait forever for this resolution to be implemented”.
For many in the Middle East, Countryman’s playing down of the failure to hold the 2012 conference uncomfortably echoed the way some nuclear-armed states have treated obligations on themselves as “political commitments” that are somehow less binding and important than the obligations undertaken by the NPT’s non-nuclear states parties. Since Egypt persuaded the remaining Arab states to join the NPT following adoption of the 1995 Resolution, many were incensed by Countryman’s lecture on how “leadership must also come from the states of the region”, with references to their responsibility for “creating the political and security conditions” to achieve a WMD free zone. Having called on the regional states to back “the big idea”, he then urged them to show “creative thinking that is smaller, but big enough to get us to the first step, to Helsinki”. He caused further irritation by criticising those that “impose preconditions”, apparently directing this at NPT states, with no mention of Israel, which has sought guarantees in advance of indicating its participation in the Helsinki conference (if one ever takes place).
To avoid a total impasse, the UK, Russia and the US back Laajava’s efforts to convene multilateral “preparatory consultations” among regional states. The hope is that Israel would be prepared to join such consultations (earmarked for Geneva), which could build agreement on issues like the conference agenda and next steps for inclusion in an outcome document. This may be a “positive track” forward, as Russia’s Ambassador Mikhail Ulyanov hoped. But it was clear many Arab states remain to be convinced. Some want clear guarantees that they won’t be side-lined into talks with no conference, steps or outcome. Russia did its best to reassure them that the “proposed consultations do not at all substitute the idea of convening the Conference”. Russia’s support at this stage appears crucial. When arguing that “the convenors had no authority to postpone” the 2012 conference, Egypt singled out Russia to “appreciate”.
With the walk out and Badr’s statement, Egypt was issuing warning signals in a way that needs to be understood for the future. In particular, the NPT is important, but support will not be unconditional. In Badr’s words, “Egypt strongly supports the NPT regime. It has always championed the cause of a nuclear weapon free world. However, the establishment of a Middle East nuclear weapon free zone is essential for our national interest. We cannot wait forever for the launching of a process that would lead to the establishment of this zone, a process that was repeatedly committed to within the NPT. We cannot continue to attend meetings and agree on outcomes that do not get implemented, yet to be expected to abide by the concessions we gave for this outcome.”
Egypt’s walk-out must be understood as a strong signal that patience is wearing thin. Despite earlier discussions about a collective boycott of the NPT meeting, Egypt did not seek to take the others with them, which would have made the stakes much higher (and could also have backfired and exposed divisions). Rather than a collective non-appearance that might have served as a de facto gag, removing Arab voices from the meeting, Egypt chose to engage fully in the opening plenaries, nuclear disarmament, safeguards and Middle East debates. Its walk-out was timed to enhance its political visibility and transmit a carefully calibrated strategic warning. When a collective Arab boycott was being mooted earlier this year, some reasoned that only by leaving (or threatening to leave) the NPT would their regional concerns be taken seriously. They pointed out that the US and others pay far more attention to Israel, which is not a member of the NPT, than to the security concerns of 22 Arab states that are NPT states parties.
Egypt’s action is not the sabre-rattling of a state that wants to leave the NPT and develop nuclear weapons. It is a strong signal from a non-nuclear-armed regional leader that it is losing confidence that this treaty will ever become fit for purpose in regional and disarmament terms. As with the 1995 Resolution and its role in bringing the remaining Arab states into the NPT, Cairo has expended considerable political capital in trying to make the NPT deliver its core security objectives. Egypt worked with New Agenda Coalition partners to negotiate with the nuclear-weapon states on a comprehensive step by step disarmament process (the so-called ‘thirteen steps’) which were adopted in 2000 to international fanfare – and then largely ignored and reneged on. Egypt was unfairly blamed for the failure of the 2005 NPT Review Conference after refusing to accept an agenda that – due to pressure from the Bush administration’s UN ambassador John Bolton – omitted the importance of the 1995 and 2000 agreements. And in 2010 Egypt was the prime mover – as coordinator of the 120-something Non-Aligned states in the NPT – in crafting and achieving adoption of the key elements of the NPT Action Plan, of which the commitment to hold the 2012 Conference on the Middle East was its priority objective. That is a very large political investment in the NPT, with little to show for it.
Egypt has many domestic as well as regional security challenges. For those that follow such events at home, the walk-out is reportedly popular. Some NPT diplomats were dismissing it as “gesture politics”. Gesture it may have been, but it would be a strategic error to dismiss this as something trivial. In the history of the NPT, this walk out was a first, and not lightly undertaken. Egypt chose this time not to ask others to join in. But make no mistake: one of its staunchest advocates has put the NPT regime on notice.