Having initially questioned the nature of Egypt’s participation in the Saudi-led military campaign against Yemen’s Houthi rebels, which has entered its third week, the country’s political class is now voicing reservations on the increasing likelihood that ground troops will be called and sent into Yemen.
On Monday, Defense Minister Sedki Sobhi flew to Pakistan for military talks believed to be related to the Yemen war, on the same day that it was revealed that Saudi Arabia asked Islamabad to contribute soldiers, suggesting that plans for a ground deployment could be underway.
Prior to that Sobhi held talks with the chief of Djiboutian defence forces over the war’s repercussions on the Bab El-Mandab strait, located between Yemen, Djibouti and Eritrea. The strait connects the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean via Egypt’s Suez Canal, which makes it of vital strategic importance to Cairo.
It also makes Bab El-Mandab Egypt’s only relevant concern in the Yemeni crisis, rather than the Houthi’s power grab, their overthrow of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi or their alliance with Iran, Riyadh’s regional nemesis. Saudi Arabia said it would continue its campaign against the Houthis for as long as it takes to reinstate President Hadi -now in exile - in power.
Following a six-hour long meeting with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) on Saturday, President Abdel-Fatah El-Sisi said that Egypt is participating in the military campaign because it can’t “abandon” the Gulf’s security. He reminded Egyptians that Saudi Arabia shipped much needed fuel to operate Egypt’s power stations, which are suffering from the country’s growing energy crisis, among “many other” favours.
El-Sisi provided no information about the nature of Egypt’s involvement in the Saudi-led campaign, or if it will include sending ground troops. But he dismissed analogies to Egypt’s tragic history with Yemen, when it sent 70,000 troops to support the 1962 republican coup against the monarchy and, over the next five years, suffered thousands of casualties and a humiliating defeat. “Our intervention then and the existing reality now are very different,” he said.
El-Sisi mentioned Bab El-Mandab strait only briefly towards the end of his nine-minute speech.
Lacking details, the briefing did little to assure the domestic front, but sent clear messages to Riyadh -Egypt's biggest economic ally since 2013- about Cairo’s commitment to their operation in Yemen, even if Egypt’s leadership has favoured prior to, and during the war, a political exit to the crisis.
Egypt is also concerned about Saudi Arabia’s insistence that the entire operation remains under Defence Minister Prince Mohamed Ben Salman’s leadership, the Saudi monarch’s son, in addition to vagueness about the nature of Egypt’s role in the campaign, be it naval or a ground operation, according to informed government officials who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly on condition of anonymity.
Sisi’s meeting with SCAF on Saturday was the third in two weeks over Yemen, during which he got their backing (absent a parliament, which Egypt has not had since 2012) for a military ground operation.
Abdallah El-Sinnawi, a Nasserist columnist close to decision-making circles, wrote in El-Shorouk newspaper Monday that the decision was made according to Article 152 in the constiution whihc, in the absence of a parliament, grants SCAF the authority to approve the president's decision to declare war and deploy Egyptian armed forces in military combat overseas.
Pointing out that Aden, Yemen’s second largest city, was overrun by the Houthis despite the Saudi-led campaign, El-Sennawi questioned Riyadh’s leverage, given the current balance of power, in the eventuality of going to the negotiating table in order to reach a political settlement.
“There is no Egyptian answer that respects the general anxiety [about the war] and can build wide national consensus before deploying troops abroad,” he wrote.
In anticipating the repercussions of a political defeat prior to negotiations, Saudi Arabia wants the military balance on the ground to be in its favour, but because its armed forces are unequipped for a ground incursion, El-Sennawi added, it's counting on Egypt.
Egypt’s opposition parties have voiced reservations about the Saudi-led operation from its onset.
The liberal El-Dostour Party demanded more transparency on Egypt’s role in the war, the extent to which the armed forces are willing to go in the campaign, and its timeframe.
The Strong Egypt Party of ex-Muslim Brotherhood dissident Abdel-Moneim Aboul-Fotouh echoed the same demands and described the rising civilian death toll in Yemen as a violation of “all legal and humanitarian laws”. The party indirectly criticised that all the information related to the Saudi-led coalition is coming from Riyadh, despite Egypt’s participation, “as if there’s no political leadership [here],” its statement said.
A strongly worded statement by the leftist Popular Alliance Party categorically refused an Arab war on a neighbouring Arab country and explicitly rejected the regime’s alleged efforts to gain financial assistance for Egypt’s faltering economy at any “political price”.
A brief statement by the Muslim Brotherhood -whose exiled leadership is believed to be hopeful about the new Saudi monarch’s willingness to seed an improvement in the group’s status in Egypt- said the Yemeni crisis was caused by a coup on legitimacy.
On Saturday, a small but rare protest was organised by a previously unknown group called the Revolutionary Alternative in front of the Saudi Arabian embassy in Cairo, attacking airstrikes on Yemen and the Saudi monarch, King Salman. Although demonstrations are banned in Egypt since late 2013 and protestors frequently face arrest, long jail terms, or police violence, the police didn’t attempt to stop the protest.
At least two pro-government TV talk shows have openly opposed the Saudi-led military campaign as harmful, useless and miscalculated, and offered rare nuanced analysis on Iran’s regional role that steered clear of the decades old-hostility that characterised the Egyptian media’s tone on the Islamic Republic, which the El-Sisi administration hasn’t named as a threat.
In the same vein, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, a prominent intellectual, former confidante of President Gamal Abdel Nasser and an El-Sisi supporter, told a TV show this week that Egypt “never learned” from the 1960s war in Yemen.
“We shouldn’t jump to war … We need to know if Saudi Arabia is ready for the costs. Yemen is a sleeping volcano south of the Arabian Peninsula. If it erupts, it will sweep the entire region,” he said.
But this is a war that Cairo is compelled to participate in because it can’t afford to antagonise Riyadh and other Gulf States whose financial assistance and investments in Egypt are crucial for the regime’s survival.
Informed sources say Egypt is expected to receive bonds worth $6 billion from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, in addition to possibly erasing Egypt’s debts to the Gulf States taking part in the Yemen campaign.
* A version of this article was published in the 9-15 April 2015 issue of Al-Ahram Weekly