Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1292, (21 - 27 April 2016)
Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Issue 1292, (21 - 27 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

MFO: Facing redundancy?

Ahmed Eleiba on the seismic regional shifts of which the deal over the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir may well be only the tip of the iceberg

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The restructuring of the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) to monitor the Camp David peace accord between Egypt and Israel and the transfer of sovereignty over Tiran and Sanafir islands from Egypt to Saudi Arabia may have begun separately, but they have converged on a single point: the triangle of relationships between Egypt and Israel and the Arabs, and with Saudi Arabia above all.

A nexus that has passed through various junctures of animosity and warfare, followed by tepid peace and joint pragmatic arrangements, it has now entered a phase when the parties converge on the common ground of regional security arrangements against a backdrop of sweeping regional change, threats of unprecedented magnitude and a climate charged by sectarian conflict. Also, relations between the parties of this nexus and the US administration have become unprecedentedly strained.

The controversy in Cairo that erupted in tandem with King Salman’s visit to the capital over the transfer of sovereignty of the islands overshadowed what can be metaphorically called the “great security pact” in the region — what we might describe as a major link in the chain of security arrangements that are being forged, for the first time, by regional parties without US supervision. Saudi Arabia is undoubtedly alarmed by what it sees as a US trend to bolster Iran as a dominant regional power, not least by handing Iraq to it on a platter.

The period following the nuclear agreement with the P5+1 underscored the differences between Riyadh and Washington over Iran, especially following the failure of the Camp David meeting with Gulf Cooperation Council countries after the nuclear agreement was signed. In addition, the American vision for establishing a regional security forum that would include both Muslim powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran, was greeted as unrealistic by both.

In the context of these developments the US seized the opportunity to reopen the subject of restructuring the MFO for, perhaps, the fourth time. Donald Rumsfeld, when serving as US defence secretary, asked for a reduction in these forces but his request was rejected. The same occurred when Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel asked for a 20 per cent reduction in MFO forces in 2014.

On each occasion, especially during the past three years, the US cited three arguments in defence of a reduction. One has to do with the risk facing the forces stationed in Al-Gora area of North Sinai. The MFO headquarters there suffered two attacks, one by a bomb planted near an airstrip, the other by gunmen in which six soldiers were wounded.

The Islamic State (IS) group affiliate Sinai Province claimed responsibility for the attacks. The US also argues that it needs to reduce the military expenditures it incurs as part of US military assistance called for by the Camp David accord. It maintains, as well, that the Egyptian-Israeli peace, which is now in its fourth decade, is now stable, making the MFO redundant.

The opportunity has arisen again after meetings between the two countries over a restructuring process that took place over the past 14 months. Evidently, Cairo is not convinced by changes in these arrangements, which it regards as a strategic guarantee for the peace agreement. In other words, it is keen to keep the US involved as a factor in Egyptian-Israeli relations despite numerous recent changes.

One of the most significant in this regard is that the Egyptian army is now moving freely in Sinai without triggering Israeli anxieties. During the past five years Israel has not lodged a single official objection to Egyptian troop movements in a zone where this is prohibited under the Camp David protocols. Recent understandings regarding the battle against terrorism in the Sinai have prevailed over such restrictions.

Another reason behind Washington’s desire to restructure the MFO force may be that it wants to redeploy these troops elsewhere in the framework of US security arrangements in the region. During the Mubarak era the US wanted to set up a base overlooking the Red Sea in the vicinity of Ras Binas Island. Egypt rejected the request.

It has also been suggested that this restructuring is related to the “American way” to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Originally aired during the era of Muslim Brotherhood rule, this notion entailed a land swap involving a part of Sinai to facilitate the creation of a Palestinian homeland, an idea categorically rejected by Egypt.

If, as some have suggested, certain regional security arrangements are being put into place between regional powers, the restructuring of the MFO could be a link in this process, alongside the project of the transfer of sovereignty of Tiran and Sanafir. This, in turn, is related to a re-evaluation of the Camp David accord by all concerned parties.

That accord coincided with major regional events, prime among which was the Iranian revolution and the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979. Both developments — the signing of Camp David and the Iranian revolution — ushered in seismic changes in regional relations.

Saudi Arabia, which did not want to be a frontline state before Camp David, did not want to become an Israeli neighbour after the agreement, which would have occurred had it asked for and been granted the return of two islands that had been a cause of the war between Egypt and Israel. Today, however, new factors have entered the equation. The region is in upheaval and is in the process of being reengineered by actors who include Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Perhaps President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi gave a clear signal of the nature of the change eight months ago when he spoke of “expanding Camp David”. No one at the time understood precisely what he was referring to but the Egyptian-Saudi talks over the islands, we now know, had begun in a serious capacity by then.

According to Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon, the transfer of sovereignty over Tiran and Sanafir means that the security annex of the Camp David needs to be reopened in order to include Saudi Arabia in the place of Egypt for that particular area. A week ago Yaalon stated: “We have reached an agreement between the four parties — the Saudis, the Egyptians, Israel and the US — to shift responsibility over the two islands, on the condition that the Saudis take the Egyptians’ place in the military annex to the 1979 peace accord [between Egypt and Israel].”

He alluded to the segment of the annex on “freedom of navigation in the Straits of Tiran”, which states that only UN forces or the Egyptian civil police have the right to be stationed on the islands. Obviously, Egyptian policemen can no longer be present on the islands once the transfer of title become official.

At that point, Saudi police will need to take their place which, in turn, will serve Saudi interests when Riyadh seeks to tighten security of its territorial waters both in the Gulf of Aden and in the Red Sea.

Reacting to the Israeli defence minister’s statement, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir stressed that his country would not have direct relations with Israel. However, immediately after the deal over the islands was signed in Cairo, the architect of the deal, Prince Mohamed bin Salman, flew off to Jordan, another “front-line” country bound to Israel by a peace treaty and one that could act as an intermediary, alongside Egypt, in implementing the agreement until such time as King Abdullah’s 2002 peace initiative is staged, paving the way for formal Saudi relations with Tel Aviv.

In the context of the deputy crown prince’s trip to Jordan, it was also reported that Israel obtained written guarantees from him regarding freedom of navigation in the Straits of Tiran, the gateway to and from the Gulf of Aqaba, Israeli’s maritime artery to the Red Sea.

In the midst of the fracas over the islands, few in Egypt or abroad paid attention to details related to the $16 billion worth of Saudi investments in Egypt. What is important here is that a large portion of this money will be earmarked for Sinai, which is to be linked to Saudi Arabia via a bridge passing across the two islands.

Significantly, the bridge has been okayed by Israel, which had firmly opposed such a project during the Mubarak era. This marks one of the rare occasions when an existing or growing development project supervised and implemented by the Egyptian Armed Forces in Sinai has not incurred an Israeli veto of some sort.

Opponents to the deal will probably ignore the potential advantages that will accrue to Egypt. In a very concrete sense, the agreement is integrally linked to the restructuring of Sinai, four decades after it was restored to Egypt. Nine Saudi-funded residential communities are to be built. In addition, there will be 10 granite factories as well as three universities.

In sum, there is an awareness that security arrangements need to accommodate the changes and threats in the region, especially Iranian and IS extremism, which has spread in tandem with the extension of Iranian influence.

The regional contexts have changed significantly from those that existed at the time the Camp David accords were signed, and they have changed in favour of new understandings. But the question remains as to whether these understandings will affect only the islands and the deployment of MFO forces or whether there is more to come.

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