The restructuring of the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), stationed in Sinai since the 1980s within the framework of the security annex of the Camp David Accords, cannot be viewed in isolation from major changes in the Middle East and the overall restructuring of the US presence in the region.
It should also be seen in the context of the transfer of Egyptian sovereignty over Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia, which makes Riyadh responsible for Egypt’s obligations in the relevant portions of the security annex of the Camp David Accords.
The US’ “war on terror” is another major factor: restructuring the MFO could allow additional tasks to be added to the force’s traditional role which might then be charged to the US government’s budget for counterterrorism in Middle East.
For the past decade there have been calls in Washington to review the MFO. Towards the end of Donald Rumsfeld’s tenure as defence secretary (2001-2006) it was suggested that the force be redeployed as part of the US military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Under later defence secretaries the huge cost of maintaining the MFO in Sinai has been questioned.
The threat that terrorism in Sinai now poses to the safety and security of the MFO personnel has added fuel to the restructuring argument. The force has already been the target of two terrorist attacks: one at the MFO base in Al-Gora, the second targeting an MFO convoy. Sinai Province, the Islamic State (IS) affiliate, claimed responsibility for both attacks.
Two years ago Washington attempted to reduce the size of the MFO. The US contributes 700 troops, around half the force. In a meeting at the MFO’s headquarters in Rome in 2014, Washington proposed a 20 per cent reduction in the force. Egypt and Israel both rejected the proposal, arguing that it would undermine the ability of the force to perform the tasks stipulated in the security annex of the 1979 peace agreement and harm the MFO’s role as a “strategic guarantor” for the provisions of the agreement.
More recently, the US administration has promoted a “restructuring” process that takes into account developments in the environment where the MFO works. The proposals have been couched not in terms of withdrawal but as a strengthening of the presence and capacity of the force through the provision of modern equipment and machinery.
Washington’s strategic view of the MFO has undoubtedly been influenced by the recent transfer of sovereignty of the two islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia, which effectively makes Riyadh a party to the Camp David security annex.
Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon released a press statement following the announcement of the Egyptian-Saudi deal saying that Israel had received official documentation that Saudi Arabia would continue to allow Israelis freedom of passage in the area. The Camp David security annex will now be opened to amendments to incorporate the transfer of sovereignty, something that US strategists see as bolstering Israeli security since for the first time a Gulf country will be included as a party to an agreement with Israel.
In arguing for a reduced MFO, Washington asserted that after 35 years the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement is stable enough to dispense with the services of a Sinai peacekeeping force, especially now that Egypt and Israel have developed channels for bilateral security cooperation and joint understandings related to the battle against terrorism.
In this context the nature of the equipment being proposed to bolster the MFO’s performance becomes significant. Modern surveillance cameras, advanced artillery and drones all suggest that the MFO is being prepared to perform tasks beyond the Camp David framework.
Washington’s strategy, it would appear, is to strike a balance between maintaining the role of US troops within the framework of the MFO and the restructuring of the US military presence in the region as a whole. Washington has long believed that it needs an intelligence base in the region.
In the early days of President Hosni Mubarak’s rule the US sought permission to set up a base on the Red Sea, near Ras Banas. The request, made not long after the Camp David Accords were signed, prompted a heated controversy. Rumours swirled of a secret agreement between Cairo and Washington to rent out the area to the US.
Field Marshal Abdel-Halim Abu Ghazala denied the reports. Speaking to Al-Ahram on 20 March 1981, he stated categorically that there were no US military bases on Egyptian territory and that the only facilities Cairo had offered Washington were for US rapid intervention forces, to be deployed to come to the assistance of an Arab state should such assistance be requested.
In 2010, Mubarak restated Abu Ghazala’s contention that there were no foreign bases on Egyptian land. In 2011, when the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) took control of the country, the Ras Banas military airport was redesignated as civilian.
The proposed restructuring of the MFO is now raising many concerns. Foremost among them is that the function of the force will change from observation to tasks related to serving US interests in the region. With avenues closed to a permanent US base and given the strategic trend towards expanding intelligence activities, such worries are not unwarranted.
Could the use of state-of-the-art photographic equipment in North Sinai, naval movements in the Red Sea and pilotless aircraft missions signal the possibility of an offensive intervention beyond the scope of a conventional peacekeeping/observer force? In other words, is Washington seeking to assign “special operations” to its troops in the MFO, to be decided by the US Central Command stationed in the UAE?
The information available gives rise to other questions. Will the costs be borne by the US budget for fighting terrorism in the Middle East? In considering this question it is useful to bear in mind that the US is in the process of overhauling its military commitments to Egypt under the Camp David Accords.
Egypt and Israel are coordinating sufficiently closely for Egyptian troops operating in Area C not to be a source of tension between them. But this does not negate the role of the MFO as a strategic guarantor of Camp David. And the US would be circumventing its obligations if it uses its MFO troops to perform other functions.
If there is a change in the US position towards Camp David based on the belief that the agreement is now solid, it is also true that unprecedented developments have occurred in Washington’s relations with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel, its traditional Middle Eastern allies.
There has been a growing rapprochement between Tel Aviv and Riyadh. The two capitals have now reached a vital understanding, centred on the 1979 Camp David agreement which, after three and a half decades, is becoming the basis of regional security arrangements that are being brokered without US sponsorship. What we are seeing is a new turning point in Middle East affairs.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly