Lessons from the last time Cairo waded into war in Yemen.
In the spring of 1967, Egypt’s president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, lamented to the U.S. ambassador in Cairo that the war in Yemen had become his “Vietnam.” He subsequently explained to an Egyptian historian how the conflict spiraled out of control: “I sent a company to Yemen and ended up reinforcing it with 70,000 troops.”
Over the course of the five-year war, from 1962 to 1967, Nasser lost more than 10,000 men, squandered billions of dollars, and painted himself into a diplomatic corner from which the only way out was through war with Israel. As Nasser himself would realize by the war’s end, Yemen was to Egypt what Vietnam was to the United States — and what Afghanistan was to the Soviet Union, what Algeria is to France, and what Lebanon is to Israel.
Not surprisingly, the predominant takeaway for Egyptians was “never again.” Never again would they send their boys to fight for a dubious cause on a remote battlefield. Never again would they waste their modern army to build a nation where there was none. Never again would they set foot in Yemen.
Perhaps “never” is too strong a word. A half-century later, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is once again contemplating the dispatch of ground forces to Yemen, this time in support of the Saudi-led assault on the Houthis. Sisi has already committed Egypt’s navy and air force to the military campaign and has said that ground forces would be sent “if necessary.” As the Saudis, the Egyptians, and their allies hover on the brink of another military adventure in Yemen, history offers some stark lessons of the challenges that may block their road to victory.
In the fall of 1962, a perceptive battalion commander named Salah al-Din al-Mahrizi was urging his superiors in Egypt’s high command that predictions of a quick, easy war in Yemen were wildly off target. A coup d’état had just toppled the monarchy in Yemen; a republic, modeled on Egypt’s, had been established in its place. Yet the republic was weak, and the Zaidi Shiite tribes of the north, loyal to ousted Imam Muhammad al-Badr, threatened to crush it, with Saudi support.
Nasser, who was engaged in a ferocious struggle with King Saud over leadership of the Arab world, saw an opportunity to plant the seeds of revolution on the Arabian Peninsula. There was no time to lose.
A senior official in Egyptian military intelligence suggested the military campaign would be a cakewalk. At a meeting with senior commanders of the armed forces, he argued that all that was necessary to scare off the tribes was to send a handful of paratroopers armed with megaphones, firecrackers, and smoke grenades.
This was too much for Mahrizi, who had spent the better part of the previous decade at the head of an Egyptian military delegation to Sanaa. Yemen, he reminded the general, had consumed four Turkish divisions in the 19th century. No force would ever suffice. In their native mountain habitat, the warlike tribesmen of the north, armed with knives and rifles, were more than a match for Egypt’s trained infantrymen. The Egyptians’ tanks would be useless in the highlands of Yemen, and their air force ineffective. They could expect ambushes everywhere. The 1,200 miles separating Egypt from Yemen, meanwhile, would make resupply of the fighting forces a logistical nightmare.
In short, Mahrizi suggested, it would be best to leave the defense of Yemen to the Yemenis. On account of these words of wisdom — later communicated in a letter to Nasser himself — Mahrizi was grounded for insubordination and proceeded to sit out the first months of a war that developed more or less as he predicted.
In the months that followed, the Egyptians poured men and materiel into Yemen over an air bridge constructed with help from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. First came a company of commandos to guard the capital, then a squadron of fighters to provide them with air support, and soon after an armored battalion to secure the surrounding countryside. Yet as Mahrizi had warned, no force seemed sufficient to secure the republic — let alone crush the rebel cause. Over the course of 1963 and 1964, the fighting spread across northern Yemen, sucking in ever more Egyptian manpower.
Three factors drove the escalation. First, the Saudis were able to send supplies to Imam al-Badr’s men over Yemen’s porous borders faster than the Egyptians could interdict them. To prevent supplies from reaching royalist supporters, the Egyptians deployed considerable air power to Yemen and launched airstrikes on Saudi territory to the north and on the British-controlled Aden Protectorate to the south.
Second, Yemen’s winding mountain roads afforded seemingly unlimited opportunities for ambush. Keeping arteries of communication open required the deployment of considerable manpower to the surrounding countryside and reliance on airdrops to supply remote outposts.
Third, the mere declaration of a “republic” over the ruins of al-Badr’s imamate was a far cry from the establishment of a centralized modern state capable of containing Yemen’s powerful centrifugal forces. Accordingly, an army of Egyptian administrators descended on Yemen, where they succeeded mainly in replicating Egypt’s police state.
From 1964 onward, Nasser sought a way to retreat from Yemen with his reputation intact. In 1965, he swallowed his pride and went to Jeddah to make peace with King Faisal. But the peace did not hold, mainly because the “proxies” in Yemen stubbornly refused to play their part in a deal made over their heads and at their expense. Soon enough, Nasser and King Faisal were at loggerheads again, and King Faisal traveled to Tehran to offer the Shah of Iran an “Islamic pact” against the godless Egyptians.
The irony of the Saudis’ present attempt to form a “Sunni axis” — this time with Egypt as an ally, not an antagonist — against the opponent du jour, Iran, suggests that we should avoid casting the present struggle in Yemen in purely sectarian terms. Back in the 1960s, King Faisal cast about for a source of legitimacy that would aid him in his competition with the immensely popular leader of pan-Arabism, Nasser. Religion was a convenient choice: The Saudis held custody over the holy sites of Islam, Nasser’s Arab socialism left him open to charges of impiety, and King Faisal’s most likely ally in the struggle against Nasser, the Shah of Iran, shared his Muslim faith, if not his denomination. Nor did sectarian differences stand in the way of Riyadh’s alliance with the mostly Zaidi Shiite opponents of Egypt’s intervention within Yemen.
Today, of course, the Saudis are opposing many of those very same tribes — not because they are Shiite, but because they are seen as colluding with a hostile power that is threatening to upset the regional balance of power. Conversely, there is less sectarian coherence to Iranian actions than meets the eye. While supporting the Houthis, who adhere to the Zaidi version of Shiism, the Iranians are also supporting Sunni elements in Yemen who have chosen to align with the Houthis and are affiliated with ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh (himself a Shiite). It is also important to recognize that religious identity in Yemen is more malleable than in other parts of the Arab world, and the divisions between various strands of Sunnis and Shiites are less stark than they are in Iraq, for example.
Nasser’s deepening reliance on the Soviet Union and sharpening conflict with Saudi Arabia and Britain placed a growing strain on relations with the United States. While President John F. Kennedy’s administration was committed to a policy of détente with Nasser — much to British and Saudi frustration — the persistence of conflict in Yemen made a deterioration of relations all but inevitable. Under President Lyndon B. Johnson, U.S. economic aid to Cairo eventually ceased.
The war in Yemen was not only poisoning Nasser’s international standing, but it was also threatening to upset stability back home. As the intervention dragged on, Egypt’s economic condition went from bad to worse, domestic discontent rose to dangerous levels, and mounting criticism from within the Arab world began to take its toll on Nasser’s reputation. In May 1967, Nasser made a gambit to solve all of these problems by shifting world attention northward.
He marched his army into the Sinai desert in broad daylight, triggering an international crisis that erupted in six days of war with Israel. The result was a catastrophic defeat, which led to the withdrawal of Egyptian forces from Yemen — thus making Israel the unlikely handmaiden of Saudi victory.
With Egypt now bankrupt, Nasser was forced to pull out of Yemen in exchange for a pledge of financial aid from King Faisal. This transaction, which took place in August 1967 at the Arab League summit in Khartoum, Sudan — famous for its “three no’s” to Israel — symbolized the shift of power from Cairo to Riyadh that had occurred over the course of the war in Yemen. Nasserism was a spent force.
In November 1967, the last Egyptian soldier departed the Arabian Peninsula, ending the existential threat to the Saudi kingdom for a generation. Egypt’s man in Yemen, President Abdullah al-Sallal, was ousted in a coup as soon as Egyptian forces left Sanaa. Remarkably, the republic survived, though Sallal’s successors did little to fulfill the grand promises of the revolution, and the kleptocracy they built collapsed under the weight of its own illegitimacy nearly a half-century later.
If President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi knows his history, he should be hesitant to commit Egypt to another ground war in Yemen. Yet the temptation to seize this opportunity to restore Egypt’s diminished stature in the region must be great — as it was for Nasser in 1962.
There may be a middle way. Back then, sensible advisors urged Nasser to make do with air and logistical support for indigenous forces fighting in support of the Yemeni republic. Surely, a similar scenario is making the rounds in Cairo at the moment. For Egypt’s sake, we can hope that today’s Mahrizis carry the day.
And if they do not? Here are three lessons that the intervening powers can draw from the Egyptian experience in Yemen.
First, they should not expect the full backing of the United States. The vantage point of a superpower is always more complicated than the perspective of any regional actor. But this administration’s perspective on the Middle East diverges sharply from prevailing opinion in Cairo and Riyadh. The Saudis — now joined by their erstwhile adversaries, the Egyptians — will do their best to point out the folly of U.S. efforts to appease Iran, just as they did in the 1960s when their nemesis was Nasser. Then as now, it is doubtful their pleas will be heard.
Second, the intervening powers will have to marshal a sizable army if they wish to conquer and hold Yemen. In the 1960s, the Egyptians deployed 70,000 men, lost at least 10,000 of them, and still failed to pacify the forerunners of today’s Houthis. Not for nothing is Yemen known as maqbarat al-Atrak — “graveyard of the Turks” — after Ottoman forces suffered heavy losses in their attempts to subdue repeated tribal rebellions throughout the 19th century. The intervening powers might do better to limit their objectives: If they are prepared to accept a power-sharing agreement that preserves Houthi gains but denies them the strategic prizes of Aden and Bab el-Mandeb, they could make do with smaller ground forces buttressed by air and sea power.
Third, there are no permanent allegiances in Yemen. The Saudis recently received a reminder of this fact when their man in Yemen, ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh, dropped them in a heartbeat for the ascendant Houthis. The Houthis, in turn, had no problem joining hands with Saleh, even though their founder had been killed in 2004 by the Yemeni army — on Saleh’s orders.
The disintegrative tendencies that have always plagued Yemen have only gained force since the Arab Spring struck Sanaa in 2011. Yemen today is a broken state, in which tribal affiliations are once more paramount and alliances form and dissolve in a kaleidoscopic manner. Any would-be conqueror with the temerity to ride the tribal tiger in Yemen will need considerable dexterity to navigate among the clans and an endless supply of funds with which to ply them.
If the prosperous Saudis can avoid the sort of protracted counterinsurgency that bogged down four Egyptian divisions in the 1960s, they should be able to keep up the war effort in Yemen indefinitely. The bigger question is: How long can the Iranians, while still under debilitating economic sanctions, sustain a competition with Saudi treasure in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen? That answer may not be found in Cairo, Riyadh, or Sanaa, but depends instead on the final outcome of the negotiations underway between Washington and Tehran over the future of Iran’s nuclear program.
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