Sinai Chaos Threatens Peacekeeping Mission

U.S.-Led Force May Be Overtaken by Spreading Instability

Pomp and Chaos: The biggest problem for the U.S.-led peacekeeping force in the Sinai Desert used to be ceremonies honoring past conflicts. Now it threatens to be engulfed by instability as the desert turns into a regional trouble spot.
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Pomp and Chaos: The biggest problem for the U.S.-led peacekeeping force in the Sinai Desert used to be ceremonies honoring past conflicts. Now it threatens to be engulfed by instability as the desert turns into a regional trouble spot.

By Nathan Guttman

Published August 17, 2012, issue of August 24, 2012.
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Recent unrest and violence in Sinai are leaving more than 1,500 troops from the United States and other countries exposed as they seek to maintain a peacekeeping mission there that many experts now criticize as anachronistic.

The troops’ presence in Sinai, mandated by the 1979 Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt, has served as a guarantor of that treaty. But current developments are transforming the peninsula, long seen as a vast desert buffer that reinforced the treaty, into a regional flashpoint putting the fragile peace between the two nations at risk.

The deteriorating security conditions stem from jihadist and militant Bedouin groups that are engaging in increasingly bold actions against both the Egyptian and Israeli governments. But the Multinational Force & Observers, as the peacekeeping mission is known, are not legally allowed to go after these groups, even when their activities take place in plain sight of the troops’ encampments.

“They are sitting in the middle of all this, but they can’t do anything about it,” said P.J. Dermer, a retired Army colonel who commanded an MFO battalion and served twice as an American military liaison to Israel.

In the view of many policy experts, this is but one dimension of an increasingly complex security situation in Sinai as the consequences of Egypt’s 2011 ouster of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak unfold.

In early August, Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s new, democratically elected president, used the recent violence in Sinai as his justification for sacking the country’s top military commanders. Since Mubarak’s overthrow, those commanders have been struggling for political predominance with the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s mainstream Islamist movement, which sponsored Morsi’s candidacy in June. The group also emerged as the most powerful faction in parliamentary elections held between November 2011 and January 2012.

As Egypt’s high-stakes political tug-of-war continues, the United States, which long supported Mubarak and maintained close ties with the ousted commanders, is looking for practical measures to bolster security on the ground in Sinai without falling into domestic political pitfalls.

The MFO mission in Sinai, led by the United States, is concentrated in two major bases: a northern one in El Gorah, near Gaza, and a southern base near Sharm El Sheikh, on the Red Sea. Its mandate under the Camp David peace treaty is to monitor both countries’ compliance with the strict terms and limits the treaty sets on the presence of troops in the peninsula. The treaty’s limits were designed to protect Israel from a sudden Egyptian attack launched from the peninsula, whose strategic depth could then help ensure Israel’s security. The two countries themselves have long complied with the treaty, without incident.


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