As soon as Egypt announced that its naval and air forces would join the Saudi-led Operation Decisive Storm against Houthi insurgents in Yemen, comparisons began to surface with another Egyptian intervention in Yemen a half-century ago.
Egypt provoked widespread criticism for its crucial role in the 1962 Yemeni revolution. Then-President Gamal Abdel Nasser deployed over 70,000 soldiers to support the republican uprising, with the aim of targeting British forces in the southern port city of Aden.
But Wael Khalil, an activist involved in Palestinian solidarity, anti-war and democracy movements, dismisses the comparison between Egypt’s current and past military interventions.
“The military operation in the 60s was part of a general movement against monarchies, which could be looked at in a revolutionary context aimed at spreading a certain policy in the Middle East,” he says. “But now, Egypt’s intention in this intervention is unclear.”
Other analysts have compared the current military action with Egypt’s deployment of 33-35,000 troops in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, to help free Kuwait from Iraqi invasion.
At the time, the state-affiliated Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies published several reports explaining that Egypt entered into the war with the intention of freeing Kuwait and maintaining Arab national security.
However, as Mohamed Hassanein Hiekal wrote in his book, Mubarak: His Time from the Nasr City Podium to Tahrir Square, Egypt also reaped economic gains as a direct result of its participation in Operation Desert Storm. According to Hiekal, Egypt garnered up to US$100 billion from the operation, $30 billion of which came in the form of exempted debt to foreign countries, $25 billion in Kuwaiti funds, $10 billion from Saudi Arabia and another $10 billion from the United Arab Emirates.
Today, there doesn’t seem to be a clear consensus on Egypt’s motivation for joining military operations in Yemen.
The United Arab Emirates says the operation is intended to protect Yemen’s legitimate government and Arab national security, as well as limit Iran’s influence in the region. However, Hassan Nasrallah, a leader of Hezbollah, has argued against the operation as an attempt to consolidate Saudi power in Yemen.
Egypt, on the other hand, could have two potential motives for entering the fray: protecting the strategic Bab al-Mandeb Strait that connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden from Houthi threat, and repaying the Gulf countries for their support following the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi. More and more statements seem to lend credence to the second motive.
“The Bab al-Mandab issue has no basis, since it has been secured by several forces since 2008 under the pretext of fighting pirates,” according to Khalil.
Khalil explains that Egypt received funds from Gulf countries — led by Saudi Arabia — in the form of deposits, investment or aid since 2013, and is now repaying them in the form of air and naval strikes.
“This is in line with its participation in the second Gulf War,” Khalil says. “It’s a simple give-and-take.”
In leaked phone conversations with Abbas Kamel, head of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s office, Kamel was heard to say that Egypt is dealing with the Gulf on a “give-and-take” basis, yielding to Gulfi foreign policy in return for financial aid pumped into the Egyptian economy.
Writer Tamer Wagih has also speculated that several indicators distinguish Egypt’s current intervention from that of the 60s, but support a comparison to its involvement in Desert Storm.
“First of all, Sisi had stated more than once that Gulf security is a red line,” Wagih asserts, “which means that Egypt considers supporting the Gulf a duty, given that the Gulf was the main sponsor of Morsi’s ouster.”
Egypt sees its intervention as a “conditional and inexpensive” price to pay for keeping up its relations with the Gulf, Wagih continues.
“Turkey did the same thing with the US, but it had a stronger negotiating position” in that relationship, Wagih claims. In this case, however, “Egypt is collapsing, which technically means that it can’t say no.”
Nabil Fouad, a strategic sciences professor at Nasser Academy, also dismisses comparisons to Egypt’s role in Yemen back in the 60s. In that case, Egypt intervened at the behest of Yemen, as opposed to caving to Saudi orders, as is the case today, he said.
“There is an exchange of interests between Egypt and Saudi Arabia,” he asserts. “We are suffering from terrorism, and they [the Saudis] are afraid it could reach them. So they decided to support Egypt, which is in our best interest, of course, so we are supporting them in return.”
Khalil says that while a comparison between the current intervention and the 1991 war is more accurate, there is one key difference.
“In 1991, Egypt took its time in deciding to intervene, and there was a political vision that led to military intervention,” he says. “That is not the case with the current intervention.”
There have been conflicting reports from the Yemeni, Saudi and Egyptian foreign ministries regarding Egypt’s military role, which according to Khalil means that Egypt’s decision to intervene wasn’t “built on a political discussion with decision-makers, but instead was made suddenly.”