“Right now, the situation is very volatile up here,” Col. Thomas O’Steen, the chief of staff of the peacekeeping force, said in a phone interview last week. “As you can imagine, the Egyptian security forces are struggling to maintain security. We are being very cautious and prudent in the routes we allow for our patrols and resupply convoys to minimize our exposure.”
The peacekeeping force, which relies heavily on the Egyptian government for security, is an integral part of the peace treaty, which has been at the heart of U.S. policy in the region since Egypt and Israel signed it in 1979. Keeping the coalition secure and viable has been among U.S. officials’ key — if largely unspoken — considerations as they have debated the pros and cons of shutting off or making conditional the $1.3 billion in military aid awarded annually to Cairo.
Some U.S. officials worry that a rupture in the relationship between Washington and Egypt’s generals could diminish the Cairo government’s willingness and ability to host and protect the force.
“All major strategic aspects of our relationship with Egypt are dependent on a highly cooperative relationship with the Egyptian military,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), who has closely followed the evolution of U.S. policy on Egypt since he worked as a Senate staffer in the early 1980s. “Disruption of that cooperation would have implications for all of those. It’s a very complicated relationship that does not lend itself to facile policy determinations.”
‘On maximum alert’
The 13-nation peacekeeping force, which includes American, Colombian, Fijian and Uruguayan troops, operates out of two main bases and a network of 30 small outposts. Security around the southern Sinai base, which is close to Sharm el-Sheikh, a resort town, has been fairly stable.
But conditions around the northern camp have become increasingly dire. Militants have launched near-daily attacks on Egyptian security forces in the area, in a violent backlash to the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi. Last week, gunmen ambushed a convoy of Egyptian police recruits and executed 25 on the side of a road near a peacekeepers’ checkpoint.
“This demonstrates the virulence of violence in that area,” said Agustín Espinosa, the Uruguayan ambassador in Cairo. “This compels us to be on maximum alert.”