The personnel of the Civilian Observer Unit, 2022. Photo courtesy of the Multinational Force and Observers
By Sean Lane
Near the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, a lone military base sits nestled among the beachfront resorts of Sharm el-Sheikh. While many of the locals refer to the military and civilian personnel operating out of this base as “the U.N.,” in reality the compound is the hub of operations for the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), an independent peacekeeping organization comprised of 13 countries, established following the signing of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli Treaty of Peace. For the last four decades, MFO, through its civilian and military observers, has monitored Egyptian and Israeli implementation of the security provisions and force limits detailed in Annex I of the Treaty.
At the core of MFO’s vital mission is the Civilian Observer Unit (COU). A small team composed almost entirely of Americans, the COU conducts alternating biweekly treaty verification and reconnaissance missions. Using a combination of armored ground vehicles, fixed-wing aircraft, and UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters, COU canvasses the areas governed by Annex I and carries out rigorous, multi-day surveys of military installations and materiel deployments in Egypt and Israel. The data gathered during the treaty verification missions is then used by MFO to create reports for the Treaty signatories that detail each side’s compliance with the Treaty’s force limits.
Among COU’s ranks are a handful of personnel seconded to MFO by the Department of State. Recruited annually from the Department’s Civil and Foreign Service ranks, Department secondees serve yearlong tours as civilian observers. The work of COU—and the expertise required—is a significant departure from the typical Department skillset. Shortly after their arrival at MFO, Department secondees receive on-the-job training in map reading, air and land navigation, organization of Egyptian and Israeli armed forces, military equipment identification, desert driving, vehicle maintenance, geography and history of the Sinai, the NATO phonetic alphabet, and radio etiquette. Within weeks, new observers are out in the field, entrusted with carrying out MFO’s most critical missions under challenging environmental conditions.
Despite the drastically different competencies involved, observer life still presents opportunities for secondees to utilize their usual skill sets. Claire Ashcraft, a Foreign Service officer who recently completed a year with MFO, found ample avenues throughout her tour to put her Department-honed Arabic and interpersonal skills to use. During one treaty verification mission, Ashcraft and her team were tasked with visiting a site in Egypt to assess whether it was being used for military or civilian purposes. MFO personnel had yet to visit this site and there was some uncertainty among Ashcroft’s team whether the personnel present at the site would be willing or able to provide the necessary information for MFO to make an informed assessment. More imminently, it was an open question whether the team would be permitted access to the site at all. Though Egypt and Israel afford MFO access to all military and police installations in the peninsula, gate guards and base commanders can still prove reluctant to allow teams of foreigners entry into their areas of responsibility. Consequently, MFO observers often rely on their diplomatic skills to get themselves where they need to be. Arriving at the site, Ashcroft and her team’s Egyptian military liaison officer engaged the site’s personnel in Arabic, explaining who they were and inquiring about the nature of the facility. After an exchange, Ashcroft was able to overcome her interlocutors’ reticence. Not only did they provide the information Ashcroft needed to complete her mission, they also invited her and her team in for tea.
MFO is a rarity among peacekeeping forces. In contrast to other operations, MFO does not separate two conflicting sides, nor does it help parties to maintain temporary ceasefires. Rather, it works closely with two countries to support an agreed-upon peace treaty. In this role, it has excelled. For the entirety of its existence, MFO has been an invaluable mechanism for fostering trust, facilitating communication, and resolving Treaty-related issues between Israel and Egypt. Today, the two sides are engaging with a frequency unseen at any point in the last 40 years, and both countries frequently cite MFO as a crucial component to their lasting peace. While the benefits of the Treaty are readily apparent for its signatories, the dividends of this enduring peace go well beyond the Egyptian-Israeli bilateral relationship. Indeed, the Treaty of Peace has served as the foundation upon which all subsequent peace agreements and normalization efforts in the region have been built. These great strides towards regional peace and stability could not have been made without MFO’s decades-long efforts to sustain the Treaty, the result of the incredible work done by its civilian observers and military personnel.
Foreign and Civil Service employees interested in serving on the frontlines of diplomacy in a challenging and rewarding multinational environment, can contact MFO Desk Officer Sean Lane, in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs’s Office of Regional and Multilateral Affairs.
Sean Lane is the Multinational Force and Observers desk officer in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs’ Office of Regional and Multilateral Affairs.