Egypt's Yemen misadventure

Egypt's Yemen misadventure
Comment: If Sisi joins the Saudis, all guns blazing, he risks getting bogged down in military quicksand, writes Amr Khalifa
6 min read
10 Sep, 2015
Egypt has been reluctant to contribute militarily to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen war [AFP]

Abdel Fatah el-Sisi may be about to embark on a Yemen misadventure. If he does, he may live to regret it. In ignoring history and domestic realities, he risks a political crash he can ill afford.

Previously, there have been rumblings that Egyptian ground troops were about to be deployed in Yemen - but they proved to be a mix of incorrect intelligence and unsourced rumours.

This time appears different, however, and high level Egyptian sources told Reuters on September 9 that, as many as 800 soldiers "would be deployed on Yemeni soil".

Egyptian presidential sources, however, hours later, denied the Reuters report on Egyptian television. But, as both analysts and readers know, one should never believe something until it has been officially denied.

The potential price of such an adventure, not only for the Egyptian soldiers, but for Sisi and Egyptians at large, may far outweigh the political benefits of supporting Cairo's Saudi ally.

There is little question that the Saudi war in Yemen, no matter which side of the military coin, is already a costly affair in both economic and human terms.

With 1,900 dead and 4,182 injured in the past six months, according to the United Nations, the death toll is likely to skyrocket.

Only six days ago, the small Gulf nation of the United Arab Emirates suffered a devastating blow, with the loss of 45 soldiers in one explosion, near an ammunition depot in Yemen.

The UAE has a population of 9.34 million, whereas Egypt's population recently ran swiftly past the 90 million mark. Do some elementary mathematics and you begin to recognise the associated risks, not only to the regime but to soldiers as well, already under fierce attack on a daily basis in Sinai - while simultaneously struggling to secure massive chunks of turf bordering Libya.

     With 1,900 dead and 4,182 injured in the past six months, according to the UN, the death toll is likely to skyrocket

Forget the present, for a moment, with its harsh dualities: a thorny domestic scene and an increasingly complex foreign policy.

Drift back to 1962, when another dictator, also with huge backing in the Egyptian mainstream, decided to back the republican faction against their royalist counterparts, ironically enough, supported by the Saudis.

That dictator was Gamal Abdel Nasser and that war, one into which this writer's own father was conscripted, would go on to be known, by many historians, as "Egypt's Vietnam". A war that began in 1962 would see up to 20,000 Egyptian troops killed.

Juxtaposed against a total Egyptian commitment ranging from 40,000 to 70,000, according to estimates by a Global Security report, the military and political losses, for the Nasser regime, were an albatross.  

Most military historians acknowledged the huge aerial advantage the Egyptians possessed - but conventional armies do not perform well against enemies utilising guerilla tactics - precisely the same issues the Egyptian army faces today in Sinai against the IS-affiliated Wilayat Sinai armed group.

And fare well Nasser's armies did not, once they were bogged down in the numerous Yemeni mountainous tribal areas.

In looking to spread his fiery brand of Arab nationalism Nasser had forgotten why Yemen had consistently been a burial ground for foreigners: geography, fighting style and tribal dynamics.

So why then would a former military leader, such as Sisi, take such a risky step as to place Egyptian troops on Yemeni soil? 

"Any such steps would be explained to the Egyptian public," said a spokeman. Yet, the Reuters report, which first emerged on September 8 was further buttressed by two more: one by al-Sharq al-Awsat, a Saudi paper, and another by Reuters, which detailed the 800 troops figure.

Significantly, Reuters backed up the report with a quote from a senior military figure. In a military that speaks as one and never out of turn, this is an unmistakable political signal.

"The death of any Egyptian soldier would be an honour and considered martyrdom for the sake of innocent people," affirmed the source.

But if Sisi is releasing political hot-air balloons to test reaction, social media has responded with a resounding no.

In fact, the hashtag #NoToEgyptianInterferenceInYemen said it all. One tweep, Amal Sidky, articulated an understandable fear: "No matter the nature of the Yemeni-Yemeni conflict, no Yemeni will forgive the deaths of their victims to all who risked engaging in combat."

Those in the 50+ age bracket are likely to remember the human losses of the Yemen war and understand the gravity of Nasser's error. More dangerously, for the current president, that age group is central to his political support - and jeopardising it with a Yemen adventure would be political suicide for a president taking hits left and right.

Only this week, Sisi's minister of agriculture, Salah el-Din Helal, accused of massive corruption involving land deals, was arrested in Tahrir Square, of all places. Try as they might, the president's spin doctors could not work a miracle this time.

Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehlab did not help matters. He stormed out of a press conference after a question about his own links to corruption.

     Try as they might, the president's spin doctors could not work a miracle this time

With this kind of public faux pas, in addition to rumoured ministerial changes, the regime does not teeter - but Sisi's grip on power has seen better days.

Sinai is a hotbed of insurgency which the Egyptian military has been struggling to contain for the past couple of years. On Wednesday, a respected local Sinai reporter, Muhamed Sabry, quoting a medical source, reported six civilians killed and 14 injured in "multiple attacks in Rafah, Arish and Sheikh Zweid".

A reasonable question would be: if you can't handle, what security analysts estimate to be hundreds of militants on your own turf, aren't you putting your troops in serious harm's way in a more explosive and unknown setting - such as Yemen?

For an Egyptian military planner, the Yemen scenario is military quicksand; the quagmire that bedevils Egyptian troops in Sinai potentially exists in Yemen: a conventional army up against a guerilla foe.

No matter how you slice it, the cons strongly outpace the pros in putting Egyptian boots on the ground. But there are two pros, from Sisi's vantage point. Alliances are the very backbone of the Sisi political paradigm and there is no more important single foreign policy alliance in MENA than his pairing with his Saudi bankrollers.

When he balked initially, particularly after unflattering leaks emerged, at the Saudi request for Egyptian troops - on the ground analysts wondered what the long term cost to his regime might be. A division of 800 Egyptians on the ground would shut down those questions with resounding finality.

Secondly, and no less importantly, the Egyptian president is an autocrat in love with the image of himself as a strong man; burnishing that image before his, largely hawkish constituency - even with potential causalities - would suit him just fine.

Whether Reuters is correct or the Egyptian presidential denials are valid, one thing is certain: waters are being tested. If Sisi is a smart man he should place those swimming trunks back where they belong: in a dark closet.

There was a man called Nasser. He went to a place called Yemen. Sisi would do well to, quickly, open up a history book or two.

Amr Khalifa is an Egyptian analyst/commentator. He has written for Daily News Egypt, Ahram Online, Mada Masr, Muftah and Arab Media and Society Journal. Follow him on Twitter: @cairo67unedited

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.