In Yemen, Egypt balancing its interests

Friday 17/04/2015

Washington - Egypt’s decision to inter­vene in the Yemeni crisis against the Houthis re­flects President Abdel Fat­tah al-Sisi’s need to protect Egypt’s economic and political in­terests.

Intervention has been limited to the deployment of naval ships and air strikes. Although Egypt has sig­naled that it might deploy ground troops in Yemen, it will be extreme­ly wary of doing so given its unhap­py military experience in Yemen in the 1960s, an experience it does not want to repeat.

Egypt’s economic interests in this crisis are two-fold. First, to under­score to the Saudis, who have gen­erously backed the Sisi government with billions of dollars of aid since the ouster of Mohammed Morsi in July 2013, that Egypt has Saudi Ara­bia’s back. Because the Saudis see the Houthi advance in Yemen as threatening to its interests, Egypt needs to demonstrate that it will come to the aid of its friend in time of need.

The Saudis’ substantial support to Cairo (along with assistance from the UAE and Kuwait) has helped keep the Egyptian economy stable and allowed Sisi to undertake diffi­cult economic reforms, such as the reduction of energy subsidies.

Second, Egypt must ensure that the strategic Bab el Mandeb strait (the entrance to the Red Sea), which borders southern Yemen and east­ern Africa, is kept open to ship­ping. A Houthi threat to the strait is a threat to Egypt’s lucrative Suez Canal operations, which generate about $5 billion annually in tolls.

Moreover, given Egypt’s construc­tion of a parallel canal in the west­ern Sinai, the aim of which is to increase shipping — and tolls — the protection of the Bab el Mandeb has become even more important.

The deployment of Egyptian na­val ships signals to the Houthis that vital Egyptian interests are at stake.

Politically, the Yemen crisis has al­lowed Egypt to resume an Arab lead­ership role that has been in abeyance for several years because of its tur­bulent domestic situation. Sisi used the recent Arab League summit in Sharm el-Sheikh to demonstrate the importance of Egypt by announcing the creation of a joint Arab military force to respond to regional crises, such as the threat from extremists like the Islamic State (ISIS) as well as the Houthis’ advance in Yemen.

“The Arab nation has passed through many phases,” Sisi said, “none of which has posed as much of a threat as the one we’re experi­encing now.”

Although the details of such a force have yet to be fleshed out, the fact that Egypt is taking the lead in its development has enhanced its regional role and status.

Resuming an Arab leadership role also has domestic benefits for Sisi. Much of the Egyptian intelligentsia favours such a role and this helps to dissipate the intelligentsia’s dis­may over some of Sisi’s repressive policies at home against journalists and secular oppositionists who have criticised his regime.

Intervening in the Yemeni crisis also shows the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that Egypt is on their side in the proxy war against Irani­an-backed forces such as the Hou­this, who follow the Zaidi branch of Shia Islam.

Although Egypt is not as paranoid about Iran as is the Saudi leader­ship, perhaps because Iran is not as geographically close to Egypt as it is to the Gulf, Sisi has declared that Arab problems should be handled by the Arabs themselves, an indirect swipe against Iran for its involve­ment in Iraq and Yemen, among other places.

At the same time that it is show­ing fellow Arabs that it is coming to their defence, Egypt will try to avoid putting boots on the ground in Yemen. Although the Egyptian foreign minister said his country has not ruled out ground troops, and would consider their deployment if asked (presumably by the Saudis, the main backer of ousted Yem­eni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi), bad historical memories will render this option a very last resort.

Egypt fought a long and bloody war in Yemen in the 1960s, help­ing Yemeni republican forces battle against the Yemeni royalist forces of the Zaidi Imamate. Egypt deployed as many as 55,000 ground troops and suffered thousands of casual­ties. This history is not lost on ei­ther the Egyptians or the Houthis. Houthi official Deif Allah al-Shami was quoted as saying “history will repeat itself” if the Egyptians de­ploy ground forces.

As a military man, Sisi undoubt­edly understands this history and these risks. Even the Saudis, who are eager to defeat the Houthis, in­dicated on March 31st that there would be no automatic ground of­fensive in Yemen. This defensive posture, if it lasts, would relieve Egypt of a very difficult decision to make.