In Translation: Egypt's double bind in yemen

The crisis in Yemen, coming just as a breakthrough in negotiations between the West and Iran over its nuclear program took place, appears to encompass the entire region's strategic dilemmas. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies see it as a direct expansion of Iranian power, via the Houthis, on the Arabian Peninsula, right on their border. Iran sees the Saudi-led offensive as further signs of anti-Shia rhetoric and militarisation of the Gulf region, and confirmed again its ability to extend its perceived infuence throughout the Arab world (whatever the reality of Tehran's support for the Houthis is). The US, which had blithely backed a deeply flawed Saudi-directed transition in Yemen while it focused on counter-terrorism, is caught in the middle of its desire for a deal with Iran and its strong backing of the Saudi offensive. This is nothing to say of Yemen's own internal dynamics: the remarkable rise of the Houthis, the return of the prospect of two distinct Yemens, the opportunism of deposed president Ali Abdallah Saleh, the irony of the Yemeni Muslim Brothers now finding themselves on the Saudi side (alongside al-Qaeda and the Islamic State). One could go on.

The discussion of Yemen in the Egyptian press, for once, has been more interesting than than the gung-ho jingoism in much of the Gulf media. The Yemen crisis has triggered both anxiety about a repeat of the failed Egyptian intervention in Yemen of the 1960s (itself a precursor of the great defeat of 1967) and a wider discussion of whether Cairo's dependency and debt to Saudi Arabia may not be too costly in the long run. In the piece below, Abdallah al-Senawi – a well-connected Nasserist writer who was very anti-Mubarak but until recently a cheerleader for Sisi – presents Egypt's dilemmas in the Yemen crisis. Most notably, that the choices it faces are limited and likely to be very costly if the crisis cannot quickly be addressed politically.

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The Predicament of Military Intervention in Yemen

Abdullah al-Sennawi, Al-Shorouk, 6 April 2015

Nearly half a century after the Egyptian military intervention in Yemen, it is almost certain that another intervention is imminent. Even though the circumstances are fundamentally different today, we cannot disregard the lessons of history or underestimate the dangers posed by military involvement.

In the 1960s, the wagers made were consistent with that era in the choice to support liberation movements and defend Egyptian national security in the Bab al-Mandeb Strait. However, this coherence came head on against a ferocious struggle for influence and power in the region, and where there was progress, there were also setbacks.

At the beginning of the military intervention in 1962, Egypt was still reeling from the shock of separation from Syria on September 28, 1961 and the failure of the United Arab Republic unification experiment, which only lasted for around three and a half years. The impact of this enormous rupture was not mitigated by the inspiring success of the revolution in Algeria in July 1962 that involved the sacrifice of one and a half million martyrs -- a revolution that had received Egypt’s full political, military and media backing.

The defeat of the unity project struck a profound blow to Nasser’s vision. Thus, he was not ready to accept the collapse of the Yemeni revolution by counterstrikes from the remnants of Yemen’s monarchist regime and its neighboring allies. Perhaps he also sought to infuse a new spirit in the Pan-Arab movement that he was leading, following the victory in Algeria.

The matter now is different. There are no liberation movements and no intention to move towards a serious change that would transform Yemen from tribe to state. The best argument put forth seeks to save Yemen in order to prevent it from slipping into a civil war that will totally consume it. This is putting politics ahead of the military option.

In the 1960s, political and military estimations projected that the intervention would be limited in the number of boots on the ground as well as temporary in its operation. Its aim was to reinforce the Yemeni revolution. However, it went from a limited engagement to 70,000 soldiers, and from a temporary mission to a five-year war that drained the Egyptian army amid harsh terrain.

The lesson of the past should guide the present. It is difficult to presume that these kinds of wars will be limited—unless you attack and expand operations, those you are fighting will attack you in your strongholds.

Yes indeed, the purposes were noble. Saving an illustrious Arab country from the darkness of the Middle Ages where the simplest modern tools like the electric iron was not heard of and the most basic human rights were not recognized. But this noble act seemed to other actors an opportunity to grind down the Egyptian military in Yemen before grinding it down in Sinai several years later. If we do not calculate every move and evaluate consequences, we would be a people who discards their own historical experience with all it holds of promises and frustrations.

It is clear from the words of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi that the decision for military intervention has been taken decisively and the constitutional procedures according to Article 152 of the constitution (Declaration of War and Dispatching Armed Forces in a Combat Mission outside the Borders of the State) have begun. The first step according to the constitution in the event that there is no parliament is “to ask for the opinion of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces,” which is precisely what happened. The next two steps are “the approval of both the Cabinet and the National Defense Council.” And in effect, the President announced that he is going meet with them for this purpose.

This extraordinary meeting of the Egyptian military command was preceded by one in Riyadh—the very timing of which raises eyebrows—between the chiefs of staff of the armies participating in what is called “Operation Decisive Storm.” Apparently, this meeting was in preparation for intervention on the ground after airstrike operations failed to destroy the capacity of the Houthi forces and supporters of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh to threaten Aden. If the second capital – Aden – falls now that the first capital of Sanaa has already fallen, then this would mean that any storm or any decisiveness had been defeated even before returning to the negotiation table.

It will certainly not be long before the resumption of negotiations. The international and regional consensus embraced by the United States and the European Union as well as Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and even Iran are all in agreement upon this option. Here the main question is: under which balance of power will the expected negotiations occur and what will be their political contours? No answer has been offered to this question in Egypt that takes into account public wariness and seeks to build a national consensus before sending troops abroad.

To be completely frank, Saudi Arabia is weighing the consequences of a political defeat before the expected negotiations. It is seeking for the military balance on the ground be to its advantage before any political milestone is implemented under the suspended results of the Yemeni national dialogue. It is also seeking legitimatization of an international presence before any recognition of the legitimacy of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. However, Saudi forces are not qualified for a ground intervention and they know that it is costly and that its effects could expand into its own territory. The Saudis are counting on a new Egyptian military role in Yemen, which would practically lead the other allied forces.

There is semi-confirmed information that Egypt had no involvement to speak of in planning or executing the airstrike operations against the positions and strongholds of the Houthis and President Saleh’s supporters. Moreover, Egypt was notified about these operations only shortly before the strikes were launched in advance of the Sharm el-Sheikh economic summit. At the same time, the United States has managed the airstrike operations by providing logistics and intelligence support and by playing other roles that might be regarded as more central.

It is worth noting that the words of President Sisi did not indicate or mention explicitly at any time that ground forces would be sent or that there is any tendency towards military intervention in Yemen, despite the clear meaning of what lies behind his words. This lack of a direct admission reflects a certain unease regarding the possible consequences and implications, as well as some wariness towards anxious public opinion. He is totally correct in his unease and the reason for caution. He is facing the most dangerous decision since he became president. He is between a rock and a hard place, but he has almost no choice but to choose.

The first choice would be to heed public anxiety and act cautiously by deciding not to send any ground forces to Yemen. However, this choice would cost him the loss of his allies in the Gulf, who, when the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted from power, doubled down on Egypt as a counterbalance to the rise of Iran in the Middle East and an insurance policy for the countries of the region. The effects of this possible loss go beyond the Gulf region. It severely diminishes the possibility of a new rise of Egypt in the region within the foreseeable future, at a difficult moment in which the heft of the regional players is being sized up following the great breakthrough in the Iranian nuclear program crisis.

The second choice is for President Sisi to submit to the pressure and arm-twisting beyond what Egyptian national security can handle at a time where a fierce war is already underway against terrorism in Sinai. This choice would lead to a new exhaustion of military forces in the Yemeni quagmire. Indeed, it must be recognized the Houthis constitute one component of Yemeni society, and regardless of the Iranian role in supporting their military rise, they are among the poorest Yemenis and they severely lack any health or education services in the Sa’dah mountains where they hail from. Obviously, the Houthis are not the enemy -- nor is Iran, for that matter. The real enemy is Israel. Confronting the crisis requires that the political possibilities be clearly articulated.

Regional balance is necessary. Confronting any infringement on Arab rights and lands should not be taken lightly, seeing as Arab weakness has become a matter of public and general ridicule. Even so, this requires that Egypt not get involved by any means in sectarian conflicts—which are virtually unknown during its modern history—or in any way engage in an open war against Iran.

In other words, it is not possible for Egypt to isolate itself from the Gulf and refuse its security requirements, lest we act in complete foolishness; nor is involvement in the Yemeni quagmire once again an acceptable option, or we will have learned nothing from history. Before any military action, a political solution is the first priority.