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On Egypt’s foreign policy approach toward the Yemen crisis

Caution has been the watchword of Egyptian policy on Yemen, though if further deterioration occurs, Cairo may be forced to intervene

Ahmed Eleiba , Wednesday 14 Feb 2018
Yemeni militiamen and soldiers allied to the country's internationally recognized government climb a mountain in the outskirts of Sanaa, Yemen Friday, Feb. 2, 2018 AP

Egypt has a taken a traditional standpoint towards the current Yemeni crisis, as such it has prioritised the protection of its national borders. From a geopolitical standpoint, Egypt has also taken into consideration the security of the Red Sea, the entire Arab Gulf and Yemen itself. 

As it stands, Yemen risks the destruction of its republic at the hands of Houthi militias that have taken over Sanaa since 21 September 2014. Furthermore, these militias have been stretching out their attacks to other parts in the region.

On the surface it seems that Egypt’s participation in the Yemen crisis is one of “cautious engagement,” rather than direct involvement, despite the fact that Egypt is part of the coalition seeking to restore the legitimate Yemeni government. It is important to note that this coalition has both political and security dimensions.

Nevertheless, a more critical reading of Egypt’s “cautious engagement” will reveal a much more multidimensional and complex foreign policy. The most important priority for Egypt at this point is for stability to return to Yemen through political settlements. To accomplish such a feat, Egypt should not simply get involved militarily, as it would have contrary effects within Yemen’s political landscape.

Further analysis shows that the road to settlement in Yemen has two paths. The first path, led by the United Nations, is a political one aimed at ensuring security and political stability in Yemen. The second path involves the conflicting parties in Yemen negotiating with Saudi Arabia. This option has faced some difficulties since rebel Houthi-Saleh groups are refusing to hold talks with Saudi Arabia. Moreover, the loyalty these groups have toward Iran would only cause further discord in such dialogues. Despite minor successes of peace talks held in Kuwait, there is still a standstill because Houthi groups have placed their political stronghold over security in Yemen and as a result they refuse to hand over their weapons. Such behaviour is reminiscent of that of Hezbullah, another group that Saudi Arabia has clashed with.

While Egypt has had successes in holding negotiations with violent groups, recent dialogues with Hamas being a prime example, recent actions of Houthi groups have made it hesitant to get further involved in these talks. Furthermore, the Houthi groups’ recent decision to break away from their pro-Salah alliance by going as far as to assassinate the former Yemeni president has only complicated the conflict further for Egypt.

Another reason why Egypt has not been more involved in the Yemen crisis is the fact that it is currently in the middle of an internal war against terrorist groups residing towards the east in Sinai and toward its western border with Libya. Naturally, states that are part of the coalition to restore stability in Yemen understand Egypt’s predicament.

In spite of Egypt’s refusal to get directly involved in the conflict, its policy of cautious engagement has had some positive implications. For instance, Egypt has sent a naval fleet to protect the Red Sea from the clashes in Yemen; as such Egypt has provided security for its own strategic interests and the strategic interests of the region as a whole. Additionally, there is the view that Egypt need not play a larger role unless the conflict becomes a long-term open war, which would require Egypt to map out a strategic armed plan that will end the war in a swift and calculated fashion.

Another factor that shows that the Egyptian government is right in taking a cautionary approach toward Yemen is the emergence of new forces in South Yemen that have entered the already complex conflict.

In conclusion, it can be said that all steps that Egypt has taken were steps that prioritised its national security. Egypt’s approach is also the result of thorough calculation of the danger that direct involvement would pose as well as the quagmire that it would find itself in via this convoluted conflict. Also getting the legitimate government and opposing forces to the negotiation table will not only require simple tactical moves, but a clear strategic political vision from all involved legitimate parties who seek to restore stability to their country.

Unfortunately, the emergence of the Houthi movement in Sanaa has only given rise to other players that aim to either prolong the conflict or to divide Yemen. If the situation gets worse, then Egypt and other members of the coalition could be forced to get more directly involved.  

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