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Book review: Diaries of an Egyptian officer in the War of Yemen

A new autobiography fills in some gaps in the record of what happened on the ground in Egypt's fateful intervention in Yemen in the 1960s, where the army of Gamal Abdel Nasser found itself outmanoeuvred and exhausted

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Thursday 23 Oct 2014
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Youmiyyat Dhabit fi Harb Al-Yemen (The Diaries of an Officer in the War of Yemen) by Mohammed Mabrouk, General Egyptian Book Organisation, Autobiography Series, 2014. pp. 203

Despite the fact that Mohammed Mabrouk, the writer of this autobiography, isn't in the writing business, he was witness to an event and period of extreme significance in the history of Egypt and the Arab world: the War of Yemen in the 1960s. Due to the scarcity of books — whether historical or literary — dealing impartially with the details of this war which the Egyptian army participated, the diary's publication helps fill a gap in this respect.

Since what Mabrouk writes is part of his own autobiography, hence he isn't required to document what he mentions or be committed to a general framework, as the historian, he is only committed to what he saw with his own eyes, which is of course a strong point for this book.

While Mabrouk served as an enlisted officer, his position and humble military rank enabled him to see events close at hand, to live with soldiers in their quarters, not enjoying the high privilege and removal of top ranking officers.

Chance played a role in Mabrouk's life. Instead of having a military service exemption certificate, like many born in the same birth year, he got enlisted immediately and entered the College of Reserve Officers, graduating as a lieutenant in 1962. Once again, chance played a role in his selection to be sent to Yemen in early 1963, to support the Yemeni Revolution that broke out against tyrannical and reactionary rule and asked President Gamal Abdel Nasser to intervene and protect the uprising.  

The War of Yemen broke out after a group of young Yemeni officers, influenced by the pan-Arab ideas of Nasser, made a coup against the reactionary Yemeni regime that was in alliance with Saudi Arabia, the leader of the region's reactionary camp at the time.

According to Mabrouk, Anwar El-Sadat, then president of the National Assembly, was the only one who have visited Yemen before the coup, and told Nasser that the Yemeni capital Sanaa was smaller than the village of Mit Abu Al-Kum, his birthplace, and could be occupied and secured by a group of Special Forces commandos.

This was the beginning of the Egyptian army's fated involvement in battles that took place mostly in the caves and high mountains of Yemen. It wasn't a confrontation between the coup's forces and a specific army, but surprise raids executed by a few individuals causing vast damage and vanishing back into the caves and mountains.

Mabrouk asserts that Saudi Arabia stood with all its might behind the deposed Imam of Yemen, fearing that the spark of revolution against tyranny would be transferred to its lands, just over the border. Moreover, it was imperative to defeat Nasser and the national liberation movement. In short, the Saudi regime dealt with the war as a matter of life or death.

In addition to the flow of mercenaries and the alliance between Western intelligence agencies and arms merchants, there is the Israeli role. Israel "dropped weapons and ammunition to the royalists (the Imam's supporters) besieged in the mountains of Yemen [by planes] taking off from the military base in Djibouti that was under French occupation."

In August 1965, Nasser was obliged to hold talks with King Faisal of Saudi Arabia in Jeddah after the Egyptian army was totally exhausted. The talks ended with an accord that provided for a gradual withdrawal of Egyptian forces, the cessation of all Saudi help to the royalists, and establishing procedures for a national plebiscite to determine Yemen's future government.

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