Securing interests: Egypt in Yemen

Ahmed Eleiba , Sunday 5 Apr 2015

What are the political and military calculations behind Egypt’s participation in Operation Decisive Storm?

El-Sisi with Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi
In this Friday, March 27, 2015 photo, Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, right, meets with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi after his arrival to attend an Arab summit, which begins Saturday, in Sharm el-Sheikh, South Sinai, Egypt, Friday, March 27, 2015 (Photo: AP)

Egypt is taking part in the ten-member Arab coalition that has intervened in Yemen against the Houthis and Armed Forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. When Operation Decisive Storm began the Foreign Ministry denied any Egyptian involvement. Yet within hours Egypt had declared its support and announced it would contribute naval and air forces and ground troops if necessary.

The shift raised questions over Egypt's commitment to the operation. They were soon answered by news that four Egyptian naval vessels had been deployed to Yemen.

The exact nature of Egypt's role remains unclear. The army has issued no official statements and the operation's central command in Saudi Arabia has not specified the roles being played by coalition partners.

Inevitably the current operation invites comparisons with Egypt’s experience in Yemen in the 1960s. What, many commentators have asked, are the calculations that led Egypt to take part? Is Cairo settling debts accrued as a result of Saudi and Gulf support for Egypt following the 30 June 2013 revolution and contributing to a drive whose primary aim is to serve Gulf security? Or is Egyptian involvement being driven more by Egypt’s own security concerns? Just as importantly, how do Yemenis perceive Egypt’s involvement?

General Nasser Al-Tawil, spokesman for the Retired Servicemen’s Front in Aden, describes the reaction among military quarters in Yemen to Egypt's participation in the coalition as "fully welcoming." It is a continuation, he says, of Egypt's historic role in Yemen to support the victims of injustice. South Yemenis, he adds, suffered at the hands of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, and are now suffering at the hands of the Houthi militias Saleh supports.

"Throughout the Yemeni national dialogue, which lasted a year during which I served as a rapporteur on the military committee, the Houthis tried to convince us in the south that we were victims of injustice within the framework of unification. Yet now they come to us as belligerent occupiers," says Al-Tawil.

"The grandfathers of these same people were responsible for the losses in the Egyptian army in the 60s. Egypt lost 22,000 men in that war. But the situation now is very different. It is much safer for the Egyptian army to enter this war. It has greater capacities and is more aware of what is happening in Yemen. The tactics being applied in Yemen confirm this. The actions of Egyptian naval forces in the Gulf of Aden and Bab Al-Mandab and Egypt's contribution to the coalition air force make it clear the battle will end in the coalition’s favour."

The Retired Servicemen's Front represents 80,000 soldiers, the backbone of the southern army that was dismantled following the unification of Yemen in 1994. Veterans resurfaced in 2007 as the core of a grassroots movement determined to defend southern rights. According to Al-Tawil, the southern forces lack the arms needed to engage effectively in ground combat but have succeeded in forming popular resistance committees to defend Aden.

Al-Tawil adds that Iranian ships off the coast of Yemen have left "after they realised the balance of power was not in their favour and they were in no position to take on the Arab coalition."

Shokaib Habishi, a Yemeni politician based in Aden, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the Egyptian navy's success in blocking maritime routes to the Iranian navy had "saved Aden from falling into the hands of the Houthis."

Habishi adds, "It is important Egypt now consolidates its position."

"There are two vital bases — the Fatah and the Ma'ashiq camps — which Egyptian forces should take. They are high in the mountains and no one has been able to reach them yet. If coalition forces secure the bases they will be able to extend their control over Aden."

Habishi warns against expecting the Retired Servicemen's Front to play a role in the conflict. "They laid down their arms 25 years ago and though some would fight if they were given weapons again others might take the weapons in order to sell them."

Habishi stresses that only Egyptian forces will be accepted in the south. Egypt has an honoured place in the memory of the people of Aden and its soldiers are welcome because they have always supported Yemen and will not, therefore, be seen as occupiers, he says.

According to the Aden-based Yemeni military affairs correspondent Abdel-Aziz Al-Majidi, Egyptian forces have secured the Bab Al-Mandab and nearby islands.

"Egyptian forces have succeeded in severing the Houthi's supply lines and there are reports that the Egyptian navy is still bombarding Houthi convoys attempting to move from Abin to Aden."

For many southern Yemenis Egyptian troops are crucial to halting the Houthi advance in the south and will play a central role in the creation of a military command for the administration of the country until conditions stabilise. But what of Egypt’s own perspective? What is Cairo basing its calculations on?

Egypt's reasons for engaging in Yemen are based on its own assessment of its national security interests, says intelligence expert General Hossam Kheirallah. "Egypt is defending its national security which is intricately interwoven with wider Arab national security," he says.

General Talaat Musalam argues Egypt's involvement in Yemen, and its role in the ongoing campaign, still needs to be fine-tuned. At the moment, he says, it is primarily to support Gulf security. He cautions against unquestioning support of Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi, who lacks both popular backing and any support in the Yemeni army, and worries that what is happening will lead to the Yemeni army being destroyed, “just as the Libyan army, the Syrian army and the Iraqi army have been.”

On whether an Egyptian naval presence is needed to safeguard the Bab Al-Mandab and the maritime route to and from the Suez Canal, General Musalam is clear. "The Americans and French are there with their bases to protect that international waterway which no one can control alone, not even Iran. The Strait of Hormuz is closer to Iran but Iran cannot even control that and it knows this perfectly well. I believe that the Bab Al-Mandab is under no threat."

Chief of Staff General Kamal Amer, commander of Egyptian forces during the second Gulf war and a former director of military intelligence, told the Weekly that Egyptian participation in the coalition is based on three considerations: "There is the question of Arab national security, of Egyptian national security, and the future of Yemen as an Arab state. And all three, ultimately, are linked to the need to halt the expansion of Iranian influence in the Arab region. I say this clearly and frankly. Limiting Iranian influence has become a prerequisite for the protection of Arab national security."

*This article was first published in Ahram Weekly

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