Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1240, (2 - 8 April 2015)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1240, (2 - 8 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Going to war in Yemen

Egypt is standing firm with its Gulf brothers over the crisis along its borders, but there are other reasons for its involvement in joint military actions in Yemen, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

Al-Ahram Weekly

Egypt has announced that it will take part in the Arab coalition intervening militarily in Yemen. The aim is to rescue this sister country and restore the legitimate government following the coup by the Houthis rebels and forces of former dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Cairo’s declaration of intent to intervene in Yemen —by land, sea or air, if necessary —is a reiteration of the Egyptian pledge to commit Egyptian forces  “as quickly as it takes them to get the there” to the protection of the security of the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf.

With the actualisation of this pledge, Egyptians are caught between two emotions. One is triggered by memories of the war in Yemen in the 1960s, with regard to which Egyptian thinking is still divided even after all these decades.

To some, that war was “Egypt’s Vietnam.” It sapped our country’s military capacities and left it unprepared for the June 1967 war with Israel, the costs of which Egypt is still paying.

Others, however, are of the opinion that it was part of a process of liberating the Arab world not just from the remnants of colonialism, but also from backwardness and medieval rule.

From the purely strategic perspective, the liberation of Yemen from the “Imamate” did not only bring it into the modern era. It also gave Egypt an effective strategic ally in the October 1973 war. In that famous engagement, Yemen worked together with the Egyptian navy to close the Bab Al-Mandab Straits, giving Egypt an important tactical advantage both in the war and in the negotiations that followed.

The second type of emotion relates to Egypt’s relationship to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, which have stood bravely behind Egypt. They have supported it in its war against terrorism at home, and in the regional and international spheres since the 30 June 2013 Revolution. This includes through the recent Sharm El-Sheikh development conference.

Quite simply, Egypt has sworn that it will stand by those who have stood by it and now it is fulfilling its promise. This is why it is now rushing to the side of its sister Arab nations, whose national security is being gravely threatened by the grand Iranian offensive intended to expand the latter day Persian Empire to Baghdad, using the war against the Islamic State (IS) towards this end.

And now, after having extended its influence into Syria and Lebanon, Tehran has come to the southern Arabian Peninsula in the form of the Houthis in Yemen with the purpose of completing the Iranian strategic encirclement from all directions. This is unacceptable and will not be tolerated by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar and, hence, by Egypt.

However, aside from such assessments, decisions of war (and peace) are too serious and are too crucial to national interests to be governed by historically inspired apprehensions or by passionate sympathies. Egypt did not choose to intervene in Yemen solely out of a sense of debt or because it has pledged a commitment to its Arab brothers. As important as such considerations are, the motives behind this choice are directly related to Egypt itself.

First, the Egyptian engagement in the war is informed by the fact that it is an arena of the very war that it is fighting in the Sinai and Nile Valley and, recently, in Libya. For a quarter of a century, Yemen has been a hornets nest of terrorism in its various forms, natures and manifestations, be they Al-Qaeda or IS or their Yazid Shia version called the Houthis. Egyptian terrorists went to Yemen for training and Yemen was a staging and supply post for terrorism in Egypt.

The second motive is that when that terrorist brew is added to Houthi fanaticism and extremism we get an extremely explosive mixture that could precipitate very violent and destabilising quakes, especially if the fuse resides in the hands of a regional power  Iran that has hegemonic designs. That power has made no secret of its desire to reach the Red Sea from where it could threaten the Suez Canal, as it did when it planted mines in the canal during the Iraq-Iran war.

Third, Yemen is not cut off from the larger strategic arena as defined in sectarian terms, which is to say in terms of designs to sow enough religious strife between Sunnis and Shia to tear the region apart for years to come, and as defined in geographic terms, which extends across the Bab Al-Mandab to the Horn of Africa to the terrorist bases and pirates in Somalia.

Perhaps it was no coincidence that Egypt’s attempt to reach a settlement with Ethiopia over Nile waters became part of a broader strategy to stem the sources of terrorism in this larger arena.

However, the fourth motive is much more crucial. It is informed by the need to build, under the heat of intense pressure, the Arab coalition needed to restore stability in the region, on the one hand, and to achieve strategic equilibrium in the region, on the other.

The Egyptian-Gulf alliance has been the cornerstone for building stability in the Middle East for half a century. When regional balances were skewed following the Egyptian defeat in 1967, which enabled Israel to proceed with its designs for a grand empire from the Suez to Syria, this was the alliance the fought the October 1973 war, marking the beginning of the recoil of that hegemonic project.

When regional balances teetered again with the Iranian revolution and the outbreak of the Iraq-Iran war, it was this alliance that forced Khomeini to drink the bitter medicine that he had previously resisted. When Saddam Hussein’s megalomania drove him to occupy Kuwait, it was this alliance again, within the framework of an international coalition, which liberated Kuwait and restored and enforced the sanctity of its boundaries.

Today, this alliance has moved to restore balance again through recourse to military force. There is no difference, here, between the combat front against IS in Syria and Iraq, or against Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, the IS franchise in the Sinai, or against its branch in Derna in Libya.

As history shows, fateful battles create critical alliances. It was no coincidence that the Western alliance between Western Europe and North America was forged in the crucible of two world wars. Today, the Arab alliance is being forged to protect the security of the region from neo-fascist barbarians, regardless of what they call themselves.

There has been considerable talk recently about creating a joint Arab military force, with analysts and observers fighting to have the most authoritative say on the possibility of its creation. Now fate has decreed that such a force would come into being on the ground.

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