( Yemen ‘s sixties civil war- gettyimages)
After Saudi Arabia and its regional allies started their air strikes against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, it did not take long for Egypt to announce its military support for the Saudi operation “Decisive Storm.” Egypt’s involvement in Yemen has concerned many, rekindling memories of President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s involvement in Yemen in the 1960s, which drained the country’s military and financial resources.
In 1962, Egypt’s Nasser made a bold decision to send Egyptian troops to Yemen to support the Yemeni Republican coup d’état against the ruling Imam, who was backed by Saudi Arabia. Yemen’s war between the royalists and nationalists continued for years, draining Egypt’s military and economic capabilities and deepening the animosity between Nasser’s regime in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which rejected his socialist agenda.
Like any military intervention, Egypt’s involvement in Yemen poses explicit risks and raises valid reasons for concern, but that is where the comparison with the past ends. The current confrontation in Yemen involves different players with different dynamics and contrasting objectives. These differences are too substantive to make any comparison between Egypt’s previous involvement in Yemen and its current participation.
First, this is not Egypt’s war. The declaration of war was initiated by Saudi Arabia, not Egypt. The Saudis have clearly opted to take the lead in this war, thus assuming responsibility and bear the brunt of any consequences. They have managed to garner a huge coalition, including the rest of the Gulf Union, excluding Oman, Jordan, and Morocco. They also have logistical support from the U.S. and Turkey. Egypt is just one of a long list of participants. As Simon Henderson has written, this is Saudi Arabia’s big gamble. Therefore, victory or defeat will be mainly for the Saudis to claim. Analysts have labeled Nasser’s war in Yemen as “Nasser’s Vietnam.” Now, a new Vietnam in Yemen will be Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam, not Egypt’s.
Second, Egypt is not fighting the Saudis in the current war in Yemen but fighting with them. Does it matter? Off course it does. The main challenge that faced Egypt in its past war in Yemen was the endless supply of arms and logistics, which the royalist camp comfortably received from Saudi Arabia along the 1,800 km border between the two countries. In contrast, logistical support for the Egyptian troops had to come all the way from Egypt. The situation has now been reversed in Yemen. The Houthi rebels are the ones who are relying on supplies from far away Iran. The air and naval siege imposed by the Saudis will compound their vulnerability.
Iran may criticize the Saudis’ interference in Yemen, but it would be suicidal for the Iranians to embark on an open confrontation in Yemen, while they are already deeply involved in Syria and Iraq. Logistically, moving their military from the Persian (Arabian) Gulf into the Red Sea is a hazardous journey that is vulnerable and risky. Moreover, in the past, Iran has opted not to get directly involved against the Saudis. Bahrain is just one example. In March 2011, Saudi Arabia mobilized its troops in support of the Sunni Bahraini king, while Iran opted to stay silent and watch the oppression of Bahrain’s Shias. At this crunch time there is no reason to believe the Iranians will change this policy of silence against the Saudis. Yemen may be a desired trophy for the Mullahs, but not the main crown they are after.
Third, the rationale for Egypt’s current military participation in Yemen is not ideology or risks to the Suez Canal, as some have stated; it is more a simple acknowledgment that the leadership in Cairo cannot afford to say no to Saudi Arabia. Let’s face it, Egypt has already received billions in support from the Gulf States, mainly Saudi Arabia, which saved it from bankruptcy, following the removal of ex-President Morsi and the instability that followed that almost crippled Egypt’s economy. Other factors may have contributed to Egypt’s decision, namely the desire to regain its regional importance, revive its naval power, and give a strong message to its enemies elsewhere that it is not shying away from using its forces. Nonetheless, the core reason behind Egypt’s participation is its membership within the Saudi camp.
Decisive Storm is not an operation to stabilize Yemen; it is an operation to restore the Saudis’ eroded pride in the face of Iran’s growing dominance in the region. That does not make Egypt’s new Yemeni adventure right or acceptable; it just differentiates it from past experiences. Like any war, there are risks. Civilian and military casualties, friendly fire, guerrilla warfare, and mission creep. All are valid risks that should be discussed, but without cherry picking past events that can cloud our judgment of the present challenges.
Therefore, it is important for President Sisi to be unambiguous with the Egyptian public and clearly explain what the goals in Yemen are and how they will be achieved. Egyptians have already witnessed instability and death of their loved ones in both Sinai and Libya; they do not need more body bags coming back from Yemen. It is paramount for Egypt to acknowledge the asymmetry between its goals in Yemen and those of the Saudis and maneuver a policy that make Saudi Arabia’s “Decisive Storm” less stormy for Egypt.