Welcome to the Hotel Uranium

There was an uproar in Egypt about two weeks ago when it emerged that a group of seven foreigners had entered a site where a nuclear power plant is slated to be built. For 15 whole minutes, the group walked around and received explanations about the site, until the security guard arrived and threw them out. Rumors were rife: Who were these people? And mainly, how did they manage to enter this protected site?

The first suspicion was that it was espionage. And if so, then the Israelis must have had a hand in it. But the "secret" was soon revealed: It turned out to be a group of Egyptian businessmen who were interested in building vacation villages and hotels on the site.

The El Dabaa site really is an attractive place for tourism: about 145 kilometers west of Alexandria, along a lovely coastline, covering a spacious area some 20 kilometers long. But what can you do when the site was designated by President Hosni Mubarak for a nuclear reactor back in 1983?

More than 25 years have passed since then, but only at the end of the year will the Australian consulting firm WorleyParsons, which was hired to do a feasibility study, finally present its recommendation on El Dabaa, as well as on four alternative sites. Mubarak is the one who will then decide whether to build the reactor at El Dabaa or somewhere else. And another 10 to 15 years are likely to pass between the moment the decision is made and when the reactor is finally built.

Meanwhile, tremendous pressure is being exerted by the businessman - some of whom are close to the president's son, Gamal Mubarak, and some to other members of Egypt's political leadership - to move the designated location for the plant away from the lovely northern coast and allow the businessmen to build vacation villages there. The dispute is so passionate that the businessmen's rivals accuse them of cooperating with an "Israeli conspiracy" designed to postpone the construction of Egypt's first nuclear reactor indefinitely.

The head of the Nuclear Plants Authority, Dr. Yassin Ibrahim, warned that changing the designated site is liable to delay the beginning of construction by three years at least, meaning 20 years could pass until it is completed. Yassin recruited a group of Egyptian nuclear scientists who this week demanded that Mubarak intervene personally to prevent the site from being sold to the businessmen. But according to a report in the newspaper Al-Shuruq, the Egyptian government has in effect already sold the land to the businessmen, for 8.5 billion Egyptian pounds, thus sealing the reactor's fate.

The El Dabaa affair makes very clear how baseless it is to claim is that nuclear weapons in Iran would lead to nuclear armament throughout the Middle East. Although the argument sounds convincing, it ignores two important facts. First, nuclear Israel was seen for years, long before the Iranian threat emerged, as the most serious threat to the Arab countries, but despite this, they did not embark on a frenzy of constructing nuclear reactors, or even of enriching uranium.

The second fact was hinted at by Dr. Ahmed Abdel Halim, a former member of the International Atomic Energy Agency and an international consultant on securing reactors, in an interview with an Egyptian newspaper. He explained that constructing a nuclear reactor is not only a matter of the physical plant: "We have to prepare cadres of technicians and professionals, establish cooperation among the universities to train people about safety," and carry out many other preliminary activities.

His main argument is that currently, Egypt does not have enough qualified professionals to develop nuclear technology, and those who do work in this field do not earn enough to remain in it if they stay in Egypt. Although a government decision and a new order of priorities would make it possible to overcome the knowledge gap within a few years, given the normal pace at which Egypt operates, this is liable to be a long-term stumbling block.

Egypt has also erected another obstacle to its progress: It refuses to sign the additional protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a protocol that deals mainly with monitoring and supervision. Egypt says that as long as Israel does not sign the treaty, it will not sign the additional protocol. The problem is that without signing this protocol, Egypt will not be able to benefit from international cooperation. And it is thereby giving Israel another excuse for refraining from signing the treaty.

The above arguments also point to another snag: If Egypt decides to build a nuclear reactor and develop its own nuclear technology, even at the cost of signing the additional protocol, it will not change its mind even if Iran dismantles its nuclear facilities tomorrow. So the link that Israel and the United States are trying to create between Iranian and Arab nuclear armament is far from being an established fact.

Turkish films are better

Egypt's television industry has suffered another blow this year: Peak viewing season - the month of Ramadan, during which families crowd around the TV set to enjoy the evenings after the long daytime fast - is gradually moving into "foreign" hands.

Until two years ago, Egyptian series were the ones that made the money, and whose producers succeeded in selling them to satellite stations in the Gulf states for large sums. But this year, there has been a real revolution. Dubbed Turkish series and cheap Syrian series are replacing the capital of the Arab film world.

The reason is the high cost of Egyptian actors as compared to Turkish or Syrian actors - and, equally important, the meager content of the Egyptian series. From now on, the satellite stations decided, the script rather than the actor will determine whether or not the series is purchased.