Supporting Arab interests
Egypt’s role in the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen is part of a carefully calibrated regional strategy, writes Salah Nasrawi
When scholars at Cairo’s prestigious Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies held a panel discussion on the turmoil in the Middle East and its implications for Egypt’s national security last week, one item was missing from the agenda: Egypt’s role in the Saudi-led campaign against the Houthis in Yemen.
Even after leading sociologist Saadeddin Ibrahim intervened to ask the panelists at the opening session if they expected President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to fulfil his oft-stated promise to help defend Egypt’s Gulf allies, none of the five distinguished experts on the podium was prepared to venture an answer.
“We will leave your question to be answered by the panelists in the next session,” Ali Al-Din Hilal, a prominent political scientist, told Ibrahim. His remark was met with amusement by the audience that had assembled to mark the 30th anniversary of the first issue of the centre’s Arab Strategic Report.
As the ongoing crisis in Yemen continues to plague the Middle East, questions remain over Egypt’s role in the conflict and the extent of its help to its ally Saudi Arabia, which is leading the Arab military alliance to defeat the Houthis in Yemen.
Al-Sisi has repeatedly warned that the security of Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states is a “red line.” His statement that “it’s only a short distance” to go to defend them has become a catchphrase in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world.
Egypt announced on 26 March that it would join the Saudi-led military campaign against the Houthis, who are backed by forces loyal to Yemen’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Saudi Arabia regards the Shia Houthi group as a client of Iran, which the kingdom accuses of trying to increase its power in the region at the expense of the Arab countries.
Last week, Egypt extended by three months the authorisation for its military deployment outside the country but did not specify whether the renewed mandate could see Cairo deploy ground troops in Yemen to fight the Houthis.
Numerous media reports have since suggested that Egypt has joined the Saudi-led coalition in bombing the Houthis and has been sending naval vessels to the Yemeni coast. Some mainstream media outlets in the US have even speculated that Egypt could lead a ground operation in Yemen after the current air strikes campaign weakens the Houthis.
But there has been no evidence of Egyptians fighting alongside the Saudis in the war in Yemen, or of Egypt having plans underway to participate in a massive ground operation.
The Egyptian leadership continues to keep people guessing about its military moves in Yemen, while a debate goes on about whether Egypt should be partnering with Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, who have provided billions of dollars in aid to help boost its ailing economy.
Egypt cannot spend time worrying about the repercussions of the conflict in Yemen and Iran’s expansionism in the region, which could have repercussions in the rest of the Middle East with a major impact on its regional role and security.
But it is critical that Egypt’s response to the Yemeni conflict and the wider implications of the Saudi-Iranian confrontation are carefully measured. Egypt must weigh its close relationships with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members against its vital interests in the region.
Like other Arab nations not directly involved in the conflict in Yemen, the war poses a regional dilemma for Egypt. Because of the intense polarisation the conflict has caused, Egypt may have hoped it had never happened.
Many in Egypt worry that the country’s participation in the war, especially if this were to take the form of ground battles, could further entangle it in the sectarian conflict that is spreading in the Middle East, fuelled by proxy wars in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
A considerable part of the debate on Egypt’s role in the current crisis has been about whether Egypt’s participation could turn into “another Vietnam,” using the phrase to compare Egypt’s costly foray into Yemen in 1964-1967 to the US war in Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Many pundits who evoke the Yemen War in the 1960s argue that Egypt is not eager to enter into another military intervention in Yemen. The earlier war was a disaster for the country, and some 26,000 Egyptian soldiers died fighting Saudi-backed royalists.
However, this could be a false comparison since apart from the fact that the Yemen conflict in the 1960s featured a variety of factors that belonged to its specific historical and political context, today’s war in Yemen is not about the strategy for Egypt’s interventions abroad.
Instead, the war in Yemen started just as Egypt had embarked on a defensive project to assemble a joint Arab force to help it in its fight against terrorism both in the restive Sinai Peninsula and in lawless Libya on its western border.
The war in Yemen has clearly demonstrated the willingness of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states to tackle such challenges and be ready to help Egypt fight terror groups such as the Islamic State (IS) group, which has declared its presence in Sinai and Libya.
Aside from shifting the focus from combating terrorism to fighting the Shia Houthis, Egypt’s other concern is that the war in Yemen will create a realignment that could allow the Muslim Brotherhood, Cairo’s other domestic foe, to resurface as a regional political force and thus threaten Egypt’s security.
Since the war on the Houthis started, reports have circulated that Saudi Arabia has been in contact with Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Al-Islah Party in an attempt to position it as a grassroots political organisation that would be empowered in post-war Yemen.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the other major ally in the war against the Houthis, are also reportedly in contact with Egyptian Brotherhood leaders and the movement’s branches in other countries. If true, the move would be seen as an attempt to put pressure on Cairo to bring about reconciliation with the group, which was banned in Egypt after the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi, a Brotherhood leader.
The Yemen debate also comes at a time when Egypt is supporting a political settlement in Syria that does not include Sunni militants such as the Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front, who are widely believed to be backed by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations. The rise of the Islamists in post-Al-Assad Syria could spell an extremist threat to Egypt.
Saudi Arabia’s newfound robust approach to regional conflicts represents a daunting challenge to Egypt. The war the kingdom has initiated in Yemen and its all-out confrontation with Iran indicate that Saudi Arabia wants to be seen as an increasingly influential player in the region.
But many Egyptians are worried about what sort of power Saudi Arabia aspires to be. Will it use its influence to promote shared stability and prosperity, or will it seek to unilaterally alter the regional status quo?
Egypt has long been a cornerstone of the regional order, and any attempt to alter the geopolitical equation without Cairo being consulted and involved could be at Egypt’s expense as a key regional actor.
The notion that Egypt could be taken for granted or seduced by financial assistance will then be seen as little more than wishful thinking.
It is for such reasons that Cairo’s involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen is not a mystery. While it is opposing Iran’s increasing influence and rejecting its proxy wars in the region, Egypt has also resisted a rush to a large-scale military confrontation in Yemen.
Al-Sisi has bluntly declared that “the Egyptian army is for Egypt,” which can only be interpreted as meaning a rejection of the idea of putting Egyptian boots on the ground in a theatre where Egyptian interests are not directly implicated.
Egypt has sensibly invited Yemeni and Syrian political groups for talks in Cairo in an attempt to resolve the conflicts in these two embattled Arab countries.
This action, which enjoys the support of most Arab countries and of the international community, underlines the need to maintain the long-term interest of the Arabs and to resist the temptation to use short-term military muscle.