Sunday,17 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1350, (22 June - 5 July 2017)
Sunday,17 February, 2019
Issue 1350, (22 June - 5 July 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Lessons from 1967 II

Understanding the 1967 war means understanding Egypt’s earlier intervention in the war in Yemen, writes Tewfick Aclimandos

A proper understanding of the 1967 war requires us to mention the war in Yemen. The regional set-up at the time was structured by Egypt’s intervention in Yemen, and the state of the Egyptian army can be explained by the war’s impact on Egypt’s economy, resources and on the readiness of its army.

Many pundits, and many Egyptians, consider the fateful decision to intervene in Yemen to be the first serious mistake committed by president Gamal Abdel-Nasser. It was, they say, based on a gross underestimation of the problem and it soon became Nasser’s and Egypt’s nightmare.

Nasser started by sending in a battalion of soldiers to show support for the new regime in Yemen, but soon became embroiled in an unwinnable war and had to sustain the deployment of more than 70,000 Egyptian soldiers. The Arab Cold War was no longer so cold, as Cairo and Riyadh fiercely struggled against each other. Nasser could no longer count on Washington’s patience and goodwill, as he was now London’s number one enemy — the UK still controlled the southern Yemeni port of Aden and was beginning to feel the heat — and he was also an enemy for Riyadh and of course for Tel Aviv.

The pundits’ estimation is probably correct. But we should add two things that are easily overlooked. First, in the regional context of September 1962 Nasser’s decision to intervene in Yemen was based on a strong rationale. Second, shocking as it may sound Nasser actually won the Yemen War. The republican regime in Yemen did not fall, and as a result Nasser achieved his main aim in intervening, though we must of course discuss the cost of his victory.

Consider the situation in September 1962. Nasser was the leader of the Arab world and the king of the Arab streets. But he had no friends and no allies with the exception of distant Algeria that had just achieved its independence from France after an exhausting liberation war. The “progressive” Arab regimes in Damascus and Bagdad were disputing Nasser’s leadership of the Arab world, and the traditional Arab monarchies hated him. Saudi Arabia had played a crucial role in the demise of the United Arab Republic joining Egypt and Syria, for example, and in 1962 Nasser badly wanted revenge and allies.

Nasser’s clout and stature were key assets for Egypt. At NATO meetings and gatherings in western and eastern capitals whenever a crisis anywhere in the Third World was mentioned the key question was what Nasser thought and what Nasser was likely to do. He thus had an extraordinary influence on world affairs.

All of a sudden, maybe with Cairo’s help, a group of Nasserist officers seized power in the Yemeni capital Sanaa. It soon appeared that the new regime was too frail to succeed as it failed to capture or kill the country’s former ruler, the deposed imam, who succeeded in organising a fierce counter-attack. Without Cairo’s support, the regime would have fallen, and the leaders of the new regime and their clients could have been publicly beheaded or hanged.

This would have been a terrible blow to Nasser’s credibility and to Egypt’s clout, and both would have lost their leverage over Third World movements that had proved to be so rewarding in negotiations with Washington or Moscow. Moreover, Nasser had a strategic interest in securing control of Yemen and finally getting the UK out of the region.

The main risk, underestimated by Nasser, was overreach. Sending tens of thousands of soldiers so far away from Egypt was a tremendous feat, but a costly one. The intervention also had a clear implication and prerequisite in that the front with Israel would have to remain quiet.

Unfortunately, neither the Syrians nor the Palestinians had an interest in cooling the tensions. The Palestinians felt their cause was a forgotten one, and each day that passed was enabling Israel to consolidate its rule. Israel also had its sights fixed on the water of the River Jordan. The Syrians saw Nasser as a fake: he was hiding behind UN forces in Sinai, was lecturing everybody and doing nothing, they felt. They thought there was an opportunity to be seized and they intended to make a bid for leadership of the progressive camp in the Arab world. A radical agenda might have been needed to ensure cohesion, but in any case they overreached.

Palestinian academic Rashid Khalidi has pointed out that 1967 was a remarkable illustration of one of the region’s strategic plagues — the “tawrit strategy.” I don’t know how to accurately translate this notion, but it denotes the idea that small players do not always take into account the interests of their stronger allies and sometimes provoke a crisis in the hope of forcing the major players to intervene and of gaining something out of that intervention. This is a strange situation in which stronger players are the hostages of smaller ones who continue to test them.

 I was told by a leading historian that the Palestinian leadership at the time wanted a major crisis to end their sense of marginalisation, and it seems that the Syrian regime made the same miscalculation. Nasser tried to calm the situation by offering concessions in order to avoid being outplayed in the ideological battle and to prevent escalation, with these taking the form of a unified Arab command and a commitment to protect his allies.

However, such concessions only proved them right in their calculation that they could force a crisis, and as a result they had no reason to stop the game. Israel obliged by regularly using disproportionate force, and then came the day of reckoning.

Nasser opted for an “edge of the abyss strategy”. An Israeli historian has shown that under the circumstances this was the most intelligent thing to do, provided that the army was indeed ready or at least able to fight. However, this was not the case. The Egyptian army was much below its 1962 level. Operational know-how is difficult to acquire and is easily lost. The Yemen War had introduced bad habits, detailed in studies by Egyptian generals, and it had destroyed much material and many resources.

Egypt’s best troops were far away from the country in Yemen, and the impact of the war on the economy meant budgetary restrictions. These in turn meant less training, less investment, and less infrastructure preparation.

Did Nasser know the army was in such bad shape? There is no obvious answer. I once asked one of his former vice presidents, who said that “we knew, but I do not know if Nasser knew. I never discussed the issue with him. Doing so could have been understood as an indirect attack on Abdel-Hakim Amer, the commander of the military and Nasser’s closest friend. Attacking Amer would have been a way of laying claim to his job, and that would have been a complete non-starter.”

The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

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