This article was originally published in Al Ahram Weekly
The deterioration of security conditions in North Sinai since the 25 January Revolution in 2011 has led some to question the continued deployment of the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) there.
The MFO’s mission does not include combat tasks. Under the security protocol of the Camp David peace accords signed by Egypt and Israel in 1979 the MFO’s mandate is limited to monitoring military movements either side of the border.
While official sources say there has been no shift in the position of either Egypt or Israel towards the role of the MFO, questions have been raised about its presence by think tanks and individuals.
David Schenker, director of The Washington Institute's Program on Arab Politics, published articles on the subject in June 2012 and May 2013. In both pieces he questioned the wisdom of keeping the observers in Sinai given the growth of radical Islamist groups and anti-Israeli feeling in the peninsula.
More recently, the New York Times published an explicit call for the withdrawal of the MFO. It argued that the cost of maintaining the mission could no longer be justified given the stability of relations between Cairo and Tel Aviv.
The MFO’s website provides details of the mission’s funding but does not specify how much money, if any, has been spent on updating security systems at the mission’s headquarters.
The Egyptian army is responsible for protecting the MFO. The only incident of any substance with which they have had to deal involved the discovery of explosives close to a runway used by peacekeeping forces. Military sources, usually tight-lipped over anything to do with the MFO, said at the time that a number of subterranean hideouts containing camping equipment, military clothes and ammunition had been found and destroyed.
Military expert General Hisham Al-Halabi points out that from a legal standpoint it is Egypt and Israel, as the main parties to the peace treaty, and the US as its sponsor and the major partner in the MFO, which have the final say on the status of the peacekeeping forces. As part of the ongoing demonstration of good intentions between both sides there is a determination to maintain the force and there has been no sign from either side of the desire to alter its mandate.
Twelve countries take part in the MFO: the US, which contributes the logistical support battalion SPTBATT and an infantry battalion USBATT, Norway, New Zealand, Italy, France, Fiji, the Czech Republic, Columbia, Canada, Australia, Hungary and Uruguay. Between them they contribute 1,700 personnel.
Al-Halabi, who teaches at the Nasser College of National Defence, says that attempts to target the MFO — one involving a group of Bedouins, a second, quickly dealt with by the army, involving Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis (which has subsequently renamed itself Wilayat al-Sinai) – pale in comparison to what is happening elsewhere in Sinai.
He questions the motives of those now calling for the withdrawal of the MFO.
“What do these people have to gain by producing exaggerated and misleading reports about the situation in the Sinai? There has been no official complaint from either the MFO or from the states that contribute forces,” he says, noting that during the last handover of command, which took place recently, security issues were not raised.
The multinational peacekeeping force had a budget of $82.6 million in 2014, and the fiscal year ended with a $606,000 deficit. The funding gap is expected to increase to $9 million by 2016 and $20 million by the end of the 2020 fiscal year, according to sources cited by the New York Times.
Military expert Lieutenant General Hossam Kheirallah says the MFO still has an important role to play.
“Why is that subject even being raised in the US? Is it because of the funding, much of which comes from the US? I don’t think so. I think it is one of those forms of pressure that arise from time to time, or a move to serve certain US aims regarding arrangements in the region,” says Kheirallah.
“The important point is that Egypt is committed to its role with respect to the MFO and does not want to see the forces withdrawn. And nor does Israel. And the fact is that on the ground security in Sinai is now under control.”
General Mohamed Qashqoush, Military Adviser to the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies, told Al-Ahram Weekly that while concerns have been voiced about the situation in Sinai they are insufficiently compelling to warrant the withdrawal of the MFO.
But is the continued deployment of the peacekeeping force necessary given the stability of Egyptian-Israeli relations? “Yes, their existence is necessary even under the conditions of stability and the agreement of both Egypt and Israel under the current security conditions,” says Al-Halabi.
The MFO has two camps in north Sinai. The largest, located in Al-Jura, about 20 km south of the Mediterranean coast, is where the MFO command is based. Its function is to provide for all the operative and logistical needs of the peacekeeping forces and observers. Covering an area of about 2.7 square kilometres, it is equipped with an airport, gym, theatre, barracks, various administrative buildings, clubs, cafeterias, food outlets, a swimming pool and other facilities.
The second camp overlooks the Red Sea. Though smaller, it is equipped to support a military unit the size of an enhanced battalion.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article wrongly referred to the Multinational Force and Observers as UN peacekeepers