What are Kiwi troops doing in Egypt?
After initially relegating the revolutionary turmoil in Egypt to the back pages of papers and the fag-ends of television news bulletins, New Zealand's media now seems to have decided that the massive protests in Cairo, Alexandria and a dozen other cities deserve to be discussed ahead of such weighty matters as Phil Goff's hair dye and the guest list for the forthcoming Rugby World Cup. The Egyptian revolution has led the television news for the past couple of nights, and this morning's New Zealand Herald features a long report from the streets of Cairo as well as analyses of the situation in Egypt by Kim Sengupta, Anne Penketh, and Wynne Dyer.
But the New Zealand media is still struggling to relate events in Egypt to life in this much more tranquil part of the world. Television news has featured interviews with members of the small Egyptian New Zealand community, and former All Black Frank Bunce, who was caught up in the streetfighting in Cairo while making a travel programme and had to return home early, has been asked at length about his impressions of the revolution.
The Kiwi media has so far failed, though, to discuss the longstanding military connection that this country has had with the regime of the embattled Hosni Mubarak. For nearly thirty years, New Zealand troops have been stationed in the desert of the Sinai peninsula as part of a little-known but strategically significant army called the Multinational Force and Observers.
The Multinational Force and Observers has its origins in the Egyptian-Israeli Treaty of Peace, which was brokered by US President Jimmy Carter and signed by Menachem Begin and the Egyptian dictator Anwar Al-Sadat in 1979. The Treaty ended the state of war which had existed between Egypt and its neighbour since 1948, and provided for the evacuation of Israeli forces and settlements from the Sinai peninsula. In return for getting back Sinai, which Israel had occupied during the Six Day War of 1967, Egypt agreed to keep almost all of its army out of the peninsula and to allow an international force to patrol the area alongside its borders with Israel and Gaza. The Multinational Force and Observers was deployed in this border region in 1981.
The deal between Israel and Egypt was widely greeted, in the West at least, as a diplomatic breakthrough that would clear the way for a wider peace in the Middle East. But the Treaty was less popular in the Arab world, because it did nothing to address the longstanding grievances of the Palestinian people. Many of the Palestinians had been driven from their homes during the fighting which surrounded the establishment of Israel in 1948, and during the Six Day War of 1967 the Palestinian territories of West Bank and the Gaza Strip had been occupied by Israeli troops. Egypt had always presented itself as a champion of the Palestinians, and one of the stated aims of the Yom Kippur War it launched in 1973 was to liberate the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinians had seen the massive army Egypt kept along Israel's southern frontier as a symbol of Arab pride, and as a constraint on Israeli behaviour in Gaza and on the West Bank. By making the deal with Israel, Sadat seemed to be abandoning the Palestinians.
Many Egyptians had been angry at Sadat over the 1979 Treaty, and in 1981 he was assassinated. Hosni Mubarak succeeded Sadat, and continued with his policy of working closely with Israel and with the United States. The United States rewarded Mubarak's friendship by supplying him with more than a billion dollars of military aid every year.
In the aftermath of the 1979 Treaty, Egypt and Israel jointly constructed a station on the border between Gaza and Egypt. The Rafah Border Crossing, as it was officially and rather euphemistically known, was placed under the sole control of Israel, despite the fact that it connected Egypt and Palestine. Israel kept a tight grip on the Rafah station, frustrating the desire of Gazans to use it for trade and travel.
In 1987, after two decades of occupation by Israel, the Palestinians of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip launched the uprising that quickly became known as the intifada. The intifada has continued intermittently since 1987, as negotiations between Palestinian authorities and Israel have waxed and waned, and Israel has withdrawn from and reoccupied various portions of Palestinian territory.
Israel has succeeded in containing the intifada, and in retaining effective control over the Palestinian territories, partly because it has been able to use the Rafah border station and the buffer of the Sinai peninsula to isolate Gaza from the outside world. Although Israel handed control of the Rafah station back to Egypt in 2005, the Mubarak government has followed Israel's wishes by severely constraining the movement of goods and people across the border. At the request of Israel, Mubarak has often banned the movement of even such essential goods as concrete and steel into Gaza. The border has been closed altogether for long periods.
Because of the way that Israel and Mubarak have isolated the Gaza Strip from the rest of the world, Palestinians and their supporters have frequently spoken of the territory being kept under siege. Convoys of ships manned by pro-Palestinian activists have repeatedly attempted to lift the siege by landing goods on the coast of Gaza. Dozens of tunnels have been dug under the border between Gaza and Egypt, and used to smuggle goods into the Strip.
The Multinational Force and Observers plays an important role in maintaining the siege of Gaza Strip. The 1,700 members of the MFO are stationed close to the Strip, and have the authority to seize and detain any Palestinians or pro-Palestinian activists who cross the border of the Gaza Strip into Egypt without the authority of the Mubarak regime. By patrolling the deserts of the eastern Sinai peninsula incessantly, the MFO's soldiers also keep Egyptians away from the Gaza Strip.
Despite the important role it plays in one of the world's most famous conflict zones, the MFO remains a little-known organisation. Because the 1979 deal between Sadat and Israel was unpopular with Arabs, the United Nations refused to take responsibility for the MFO. The force was established instead by the United States, and is still dominated by American troops. The MFO has repeatedly come under attack over the years. In 1984 its Director-General was assassinated in Rome; in 2006 two of its vehicles were targeted by suicide bombers in the Sinai desert.
New Zealand has had soldiers serving in Egypt as part of the MFO since 1982. Currently twenty-seven Kiwis are part of the force; some of them are part of a Training and Advisory Team, while others serve as footsoldiers. In the few statements it makes about New Zealand's contribution to the MFO, our government tends to talk about the role of the force in creating 'peace' and 'stability' in the Middle East. It is hard to see, though, how the continued isolation of the Gaza Strip has produced anything but suffering and violence.
The protest rallies, occupations, and strikes which have brought cities like Cairo and Alexandria to a standstill over the past week have been an overwhelming repudiation of the policies of Hosni Mubarak's dictatorial regime. While Egyptians are angry at a lack of democracy and at 'free' market policies which have sent food prices and unemployment soaring, they have also been speaking out against Mubarak's longstanding support for Israel and the United States. Both the Muslim Brotherhood and the more secular forces linked to Mohamed El Baradei have condemned Mubarak's role in the siege of Gaza. The Muslim Brotherhood demands a referendum on Sadat's 1979 deal with Israel.
The Egypt-Israel Treaty of Peace was doomed to failure because it was conducted above the heads of the Egyptian and Arab people by a dictator, and because it ignored the plight of the Palestinians. The Multinational Force and Observers, which was founded to implement the terms of this flawed peace deal, has become an obstacle to genuine peace in the Middle East. Only a democraticaly-constituted Egyptian government can make a legitimate and lasting peace deal with Israel, and only Palestinian territories free of the spectres of occupation and siege can negotiate with Israel on anything like equal terms.
If it wants to support the cause of peace in the Middle East, New Zealand should withdraw its troops from the MFO and call for the lifting of the siege of Gaza and the end of the Mubarak regime. At the very least, New Zealanders ought to have a serious and informed public debate about their longstanding contribution to the obscure army that patrols the Sinai desert.