Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1264, (1 - 7 October 2015)
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1264, (1 - 7 October 2015)

Ahram Weekly

The MFO and US partnership

The recent attack on the Multinational Force and Observers base in North Sinai has raised questions over the necessity of its mission. But terminating it would only boost the morale of terrorists, write Mohamed Ibrahim and Ahmed Eleiba

Al-Ahram Weekly

Undoubtedly, events in North Sinai, where one of the headquarters of the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) is located, are compelling the US as the largest contributor to the MFO in terms of troops and funding to rethink the strategic position of that force in light of the security conditions affecting its working environment. In fact, it appears that a number of scenarios have been considered among high-level decision making circles and most were not in favour of retaining the force. At the same time, concerns about the wisdom of retaining the MFO have been voiced from a number of other quarters in the US in light of media reports that often exaggerated the magnitude of the threat in Sinai, especially in the period that followed the fall of Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt on 30 June 2013.

In Egypt, officials concerned with the issue have hinted that the US, during the past few years, has directly or indirectly proposed the idea of withdrawing the MFO, citing the security situation, funding problems or the possibility of stationing the troops in other parts of the Middle East. Nevertheless, it appears that decision-makers have become more realistic in their assessments of three strategic dimensions. They seem to have concluded, firstly, that the attacks against the MFO are not unduly worrisome in the context of circumstances in the region as a whole. Secondly, there seems little point in pulling out the force when both Cairo and Tel Aviv have clearly indicated their continued commitment to it, which is not because of any concerns regarding their mutual security arrangements that are public knowledge and understandable given the exceptional circumstances affecting their common border. Thirdly, what would a US decision to withdraw the MFO from Sinai signify in terms of the fight against terrorism for which Washington has so vigorously campaigned, and at a time when Egypt has put into effect a serious counterterrorism programme that presumes US collaboration and support for Egypt in these measures, regardless of some unofficial assessments in the US of the programme?

US strategy has, in fact, moved in this direction in practice. It has decided to increase its participation in the force by 75 troops, which is to say that it is looking at the plus sides of the equation. This decision was taken before the recent attack against the MFO base in which six soldiers died, of whom four were American, which is why Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook stressed in a press briefing on 10 September that the troop increase was “not a response to what happened with that IED attack a few days ago, specifically. We’ve been in discussions with key stakeholders regarding plans to increase force protection since early August.” He also mentioned that the US would be sending in “manoeuvre and medical assets”, “surgical teams” and “other capabilities that will bolster and enhance the mission of the MFO”.

In other words, the US realises that Egypt responds immediately to the MFO’s security needs by intensifying patrols and other safeguards, and that there is US support in the same direction in the form of modern equipment, such as to help protect MFO teams when they go out on missions. With regard to the MFO headquarters itself, in addition to the installation of additional sensor devices and advanced barricades, new guard towers have been constructed around the compound during the past two years, and guards have also been equipped with more advanced weaponry. At the same time, the Egyptian drive to fight terrorism in Sinai has advanced remarkably in terms of resolve and efficacy, in spite of the particular challenges posed by the Sinai environment. Tangible evidence of this is to be found in the Martyr’s Right Operation, the extensive military operation recently launched by the Armed Forces with broad public support. Therefore, it is baseless to continue to speak of the “deterioration in the security environment” in Sinai given the considerable progress achieved by the Egyptian security agencies in the war against terrorism in the Sinai. It is also important to add, in this regard, that the Egyptian-US strategic dialogue has yielded clear understandings regarding the need to bolster partnership between the two sides. A chief component of this dialogue is cooperation in the fight against terrorism.

Without delving into excessive detail, the origins of the MFO lie in Annex I to the 1979 Treaty of Peace between Egypt and Israel, in which the parties undertook to request the United Nations to provide a force and observers to undertake any military or security tasks called for in the treaty. However, as the UN Security Council indicated that it would not be able to approve the stationing of a UN peacekeeping force in Sinai due to the threat of a veto by the Soviet Union, the concerned parties chose an alternative that was also provided for in the treaty: “If the Security Council is unable to undertake the arrangements required by this treaty, the US president is prepared to take the necessary steps to guarantee the creation and continuation of an acceptable alternative multinational force.” Accordingly, negotiations were opened and led to the protocol, signed by Egypt and Israel on 3 August 1981, establishing the MFO to perform the monitoring and security tasks stipulated in the treaty.

Since it first took up its positions, as stipulated in the treaty, the MFO has generally been able to perform its tasks smoothly and with few impediments. Its mission was facilitated by the fact that both Egypt and Israel adhered to their obligations under the treaty and that there were bilateral communication channels between them at various levels that proved able to contain any problems that arose. Consequently, the MFO presented no undo restrictions or burdens, apart from those that arose periodically around the financial obligations. These were borne equally by the main parties (Egypt, Israel and the US) and covered the various costs for the force and its routine security tasks. Nothing ever arose that might have had an impact on the continuity of the MFO.

Therefore, whenever the question of removing the force arose, primarily via the US, even before terrorism in Sinai was as severe as it is now, it quickly faded in the face of Egypt and Israel’s shared position on the need to retain the force. Nevertheless, when terrorist attacks in Sinai began to mount, and especially following attacks against MFO locations, calls to withdraw the force resurfaced, and much more forcefully, as they could point to the security threat as justification.

We should state, here, that practically speaking the MFO has never had a clearly effective role in the peacekeeping tasks called for by the treaty. However, as mentioned above, this has nothing to do with the quality of its performance but rather stems from the Egyptian and Israeli commitment to their obligations under the treaty and their ongoing coordination. Bearing this in mind, we can view the question of terminating the MFO from two antithetical perspectives — one negative, the other positive.

From the former perspective, terminating the MFO mission in Sinai would be taken as corroboration of the claims from some quarters abroad that Egyptian security measures in Sinai are ineffective in combatting terrorism, or are unable to protect MFO forces. This would damage Egypt’s image internationally and certainly harm its economic aspirations. In addition, the departure of the MFO would be read as a victory for terrorist groups operating in Sinai, which would certainly boost their morale. One would therefore feel compelled to ask how it would be possible to enable a withdrawal of the MFO against the backdrop of the ongoing battle Egypt is waging against terrorism and in which Egypt has achieved major inroads?

From the positive perspective, the termination of the MFO mission would constitute proof of the stability of the Egyptian-Israeli peace accord and the parties’ lack of further need for any form of monitoring in order to ensure they fulfil their obligations under the treaty.

Regardless of the justifications cited, to terminate the MFO mission at this point would be wrong and, indeed, extremely dangerous. The highly negative ramifications and repercussions would all be detrimental to Egypt. Nevertheless, it is still important to take into consideration as much as possible the demands of the MFO’s participant countries, the US in particular, and work to address their concerns.

In view of the foregoing, Egypt should adopt a three-pronged strategy. Firstly, it should emphasise the need to retain the MFO and not to raise the question of its termination, and it should work to make this stance clear to the US. Secondly, it should increase the size of its MFO protection force, so as to forestall any openings for others to accuse us of laxness. At the same time, we should not reject any equipment offered from abroad that would help our forces perform their security and protection tasks. Thirdly, we should work to develop a unified Egyptian-Israeli position regarding the need to retain the MFO, at least because of its symbolic value as an affirmation of the two sides’ continued respect for the peace accord that has entered its 36th year.

There remain two further points. Firstly, it is important to issue periodic reminders through the media that the mission and tasks of the MFO are unrelated to the fight against terrorism in Sinai, as this battle falls outside its mandate and functions. The war against terrorism in Sinai falls solely under the jurisdiction and functions of the Egyptian Armed Forces and police. Secondly, the MFO has so far not been subject to terrorist attacks of a magnitude that would necessitate the termination of its mission. Naturally, this does not refute the need to do the utmost to ensure the safety of the MFO and to create a sufficiently suitable environment for it to carry out its activities.

Mohamed Ibrahim is Head of the Israeli Studies department at the Egyptian Centre for Foreign Affairs.

Ahmed Eleiba is the military and strategic editor of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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