In Moses’ footsteps – my three years in the Sinai

In Moses’ footsteps – my three years in the Sinai

June 30, 2019 0 By Rick

Ever since I first visited Egypt in 1973, I’d wanted to visit the Sinai, a shark-tooth shaped triangular peninsula bounded by the Mediterranean Sea on the north, the Red Sea on the south and Israel on the east. About 60,000 km2 (23,000 sq. mi) in area, it’s the only part of Egyptian territory located in Asia and functions as a land bridge between two continents. A holy place in Christianity, Judaism and Islam, the Sinai has been fought over by many civilizations. It’s a vast sparsely populated area that’s full of history and primarily populated by Bedouin tribes. OK, enough about history!

My first opportunity to work in the Sinai came in 2010 when I went from the Department of State (temporarily) to work with the Multinational Force & Observers (MFO) as part of the Civilian Observers Unit (COU). The COU has several positions designated for State Department Officers with the remainder filled by former U.S. military members. This was a great opportunity to get out from behind my desk, ditch my suit and tie and tackle a challenging assignment. For those of you who haven’t heard of the MFO (most of you, I’m guessing), here’s a quick overview of the MFO and the COU that was taken from the organization’s website.

“The Multinational Force & Observers (MFO), headquartered in Rome, is an independent international organization, created by agreement between the Arab Republic of Egypt and the State of Israel, with peacekeeping responsibilities in the Sinai. Established in 1981, the MFO is tasked with providing a force and observers to supervise the implementation of the 1979 Treaty of Peace between Egypt and Israel.”

From the MFO website
“In addition to the equal funding provided by Egypt, Israel and the United States, the MFO also presently receives contributions from the Governments of Australia, Finland, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, the Republic of Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States. Twelve States — Australia, Canada, Colombia, the Czech Republic, Fiji, France, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Uruguay — currently provide the MFO with military personnel that make up the Force and perform specific and specialized tasks. A large part of the MFO’s primary mission in the Sinai is performed by the relatively few men and women of the COU, which was formed in 1982.”

In the middle of nowhere
I arrived in Cairo and made my way to “North Camp,” which is located not far as the crow flies from the coastal city of Al-Arish in the northern Sinai but is still basically in the middle of “nowhere.” My sponsor greeted me and took me to meet my new colleagues over a dinner of pizza (an unexpected treat in the middle of the desert). The next morning, I began learning what I was supposed to do as an observer. While I enjoyed the numerous classroom sessions and practical exercises, I was “chomping at the bit” to get out on the road on a mission. I didn’t have to wait long. We flew a recon mission (fixed-wing aircraft and Blackhawk helicopters) over the area we would drive through the following week, planned the ground mission and then launched on a multi-day mission that covered (it seemed to me) about 75% of the Sinai. As we drove along, I was filled with new impressions and experiences. One of the highlights was sitting on a sand dune eating lunch on the banks of the Suez Canal and watching huge container ships navigate the canal on their way to far-away destinations.

Ancient spa
Thanks to a long-time observer who knew every inch of the Sinai, I got to crawl into a little-known “smelly and steamy” cave (Sulphur and hot springs) that had been used for several centuries as an ancient spa. I later saw the same cave on a historical documentary called “Decoding the Exodus.” I learned from the program that had we ventured deeper into the cave we would have seen ancient graffiti that scholars are still debating over today. We didn’t have the time or the equipment to go farther into the cave, but it was still impressive. On another mission, I saw the remains of a fortress built by the great Muslim warrior of Crusades fame -Saladin – perched high up on a hill. Gazing up to the fort, I could only imagine the many battles that had taken place around there. It was truly spectacular.

The scars of battles
Speaking of battles, throughout the Sinai were reminders of the “modern-day” battles that had scarred the Sinai. Old rusted tanks and other equipment from some of the more famous encounters between Israel and Egypt seemed to be everywhere. And, of course, another constant reminder are the hundreds (maybe thousands) of unexploded ordinance, primarily landmines, that make moving off roads and trails dangerous. In fact, that made stepping off the main road to try and find cover so you could pee in an area of nothing but sand dunes an adventure in itself. Luckily, we learned from the Bedouins what signs to look for when it came to landmines. True desert survival experts, they were a valuable source of information on many things.

“St. Cats”
Another exciting experience involved spending the night in the area of Mt. Sinai and getting an exclusive tour of the world’s oldest, continuously inhabited monastery by an American monk who had been there for decades. Built between 548 and 565 and inhabited initially by Greek Orthodox monks, St. Catherine’s library houses the second largest collection of early codices and manuscripts and in the world, outnumbered only by the Vatican Library.  It also has a copy of the Ashtiname of Muhammad (a covenant or testament), in which the Islamic prophet Muhammad is claimed to have bestowed his protection upon the monastery. 

“We came. We saw. We counted”
For nearly two years, I went on air and ground missions in the Sinai and Israel (from the Gaza Strip in the north on the Mediterranean to Eilat in the south on the Gulf of Aqaba. Aside from the odd “blockade” of our camp by Bedouin tribes angry with the Egyptian government (not the MFO) and the odd bombing in Al-Arish, it was a great assignment. I enjoyed our long missions with Egyptian liaison officers and Israeli liaison officers mainly for the great conversations and insights they provided. I departed the MFO in June 2012, almost two years after I arrived, thinking that would be the last time I would see the Sinai. Little did I know how wrong I was!

Back in the sandbox
In April 2016 on a typical day at the embassy, my cell phone rang; the display showed it was a call from Israel. I couldn’t think of a soul I knew who was still down there and nearly declined to answer because I thought it was a scam call of some sort. It turned out to be the MFO asking if I was interested in returning to the COU to be an observer for a year. I was shocked as I had already retired from the State Department and was working on a temporary contract at Embassy Stockholm. The “adventure junkie” in me began to stir at the prospect of returning to the Sinai. After lengthy negotiations with the family and the promise of a long-wanted puppy for my son when I returned, I received their approval, and off I went! I didn’t realize how much things had changed.

“Home sweet Sharm”
The first main difference was that now I would be based out of Sharm el-Sheikh, a popular tourist and diving resort at the southern tip of the Sinai. Not bad, I thought. And then I found out why. The security situation had significantly changed for the worse. Between 2012 and 2016, ISIS had come to power and several of the militant groups in the Sinai had pledged allegiance to this organization. The observers had gone from wearing cargo pants and a black polo shirt in my first tour to body armor and helmets over the same uniform as before this time around. Attacks were taking place all over the north Sinai, many of them in areas where we conducted missions.

A great group of professionals
What’s more, instead of heading out in a single vehicle, we now conducted missions in a convoy of armored vehicles, complete with armed escorts (the treaty forbids observers from carrying weapons). But the show must go on in spite of or perhaps because of the heightened security situation. The COU continued to conduct its missions like the professional organization it is. The peace treaty has been highly successful as Egypt and Israel have not fought a war since the treaty took effect. In fact, the two countries have great communication channels and are now cooperating extensively to counter the terrorist threat in the Sinai. When I departed in June 2017, I left behind a dedicated group of men and women who took great pride in what they were doing. It was another great assignment that I’m delighted to have experienced.