SANAA – Ambiguity continues to shroud the extent of Egypt’s involvement in the Saudi-led coalition’s fight against rebel forces in Yemen.
The 10-member coalition has recently stepped up its campaign against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, who control the capital of Sanaa. Forces have moved on from a months-long phase of extensive airstrikes that flattened the insurgents’ military holdouts — and inflicted grave civilian casualties — to a ground invasion, in which coalition troops are attempting to force Houthis back to their northern stronghold. Now the coalition seeks to battle an increasingly powerful Al-Qaeda presence in Yemen as well.
The number of Egyptian soldiers on the ground and the scope of their participation in the new operation remain hazy amid conflicting reports of a recent deployment. The Egyptian government has yet to make an official announcement on the matter, but on August 1, the National Defense Council (NDC) agreed to extend military involvement in Yemen by another six months.
But given difficult fighting conditions, the added layer of complexity wrought by the humanitarian crisis now strangling Yemen and a nightmarish history of Egyptian intervention there, what would motivate Egypt to stay involved in what is effectively a decades-old power struggle between Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Iran?
Sanaa’s old city district
When Egypt first signed on to the initial Operation Decisive Storm, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi stressed that Egypt was only participating with naval and air forces. In an April speech at the Military Academy, he said, “An announcement will be made if any other forces are deployed in the operation.”
So far, according to state media, Egypt has contributed air forces and four naval vessels to the coalition to help tighten the siege on Yemen, and allegedly to prevent Iranian supplies from reaching the Houthi movement. Egypt has also joined airstrikes targeting Houthi positions.
But an associate of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was ousted in Yemen’s 2011 uprising, recently said that Egypt is now deploying some 3,000 ground troops to Makha, which overlooks the strategic Bab al-Mandab area, with the aim of securing Red Sea traffic. Local media reports have said the same over the past weeks.
It was not possible to verify the accuracy of these reports.
“The deployment of Egyptian troops has long been a hot issue and the subject of much speculation, from the beginning of the operation until today,” says a Saudi official close to the military in that country. Both the Saudi official and his Egyptian counterpart deny reports of an Egyptian deployment, while declining to elaborate. They spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the press.
A leading journalist from the southern Yemeni port of Mukalla, who also spoke to Mada Masr anonymously due to security concerns, says that there are ongoing negotiations, including with the Emiratis, to compel Al-Qaeda to leave Mukalla without bloodshed. Al-Qaeda seized the city (which is the capital of Hadramawt, Yemen’s largest province) in April. However, the journalist says he doesn’t know any details regarding the deployment of coalition forces.
“Egypt has participated in the coalition from the beginning with air and naval forces. Until now, the Egyptian political leadership has not made an announcement for the deployment of Egyptian ground troops,” says Brigadier General Ahmed Asiri, spokesperson for the coalition.
“If Egypt contributes with ground troops, it will be an addition to the coalition; and if not, it is an Egyptian sovereign right to make this decision,” he continues, reaffirming that “until now, there are no Egyptian ground troops in Yemen.”
When asked if Egypt has promised to send ground troops, he said, “I can’t comment on this until the Egyptian leadership makes an announcement.”
Several attempts to reach the Egyptian Armed Forces spokesperson were unsuccessful.
Sanaa’s old city district after an airstrike
The Yemen conflict has often been read as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but Egypt has little interest in that rivalry — instead, an Egyptian intervention is arguably tied to the billions of petrodollars that Saudi has given the government since former President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster in 2013.
Sisi announced that the NDC was extending Egypt’s mission in Yemen by six more months (or until the mission was complete) just two days after Saudi Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman al-Saud visited Cairo.
Saudi Arabia and Egypt recently sealed the so-called “Cairo Declaration” to enhance bilateral relations, promising to reject “any attempt to interfere in the Arab countries’ internal affairs.” The Cairo Declaration also included a package of measures to develop military cooperation, and to work on setting up a joint Arab military force.
Egypt has been leading efforts to build this force in response to a regional breakdown of central governments and the simultaneous rise of Islamist militants. In addition to the campaign in Yemen, Libya has acted as a laboratory for the joint mission.
Prince Mohamed’s visit may have been an attempt to solidify relations after reports of a deep split between Egyptian and Saudi leadership over their respective positions on the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Saudis are striking an alliance with the Islah Party, Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood branch, while Egypt is heavily cracking down on the mother group, killing and imprisoning thousands of members and sending top leaders to courts. Several high-profile Brotherhood members have been sentenced to death on charges stemming from the violence that has struck Egypt since Morsi’s ouster — including the ex-president himself.
The deployment rumors also come shortly after Yemen’s exiled President Abd Rubbuh Mansur Hadi visited Egypt for the inauguration of the Suez Canal extension. The spokesperson for the president’s office, Alaa Youssef, told reporters that during the visit, Hadi “praised” Egypt’s “decisive and supportive” role in restoring legitimacy in Yemen.
“The security of the Arab Gulf is a red line for Egypt, and part and parcel of Egyptian national security,” he said. Youssef declared that Sisi “hailed Saudi’s honorable position toward Egypt,” and noted that Egypt would not “forget” Saudi’s support for the Egyptian people’s “free will.”
Aside from strengthening an economically strategic friendship with Saudi, the potential Egyptian deployment might reflect the Sisi administration’s fear of a Houthi backlash that could undermine the security of the strategic Bab al-Mandab entrance to the Red Sea, and hence control of Suez Canal traffic.
Sisi has stressed on more than one occasion that the security of Bab al-Mandab is a “red line.”
But Houthi officials say that they have sent messages of assurance to Cairo that they would not take any action that could harm Egypt’s interests. They accuse Hadi’s exiled government and the Saudis of fanning Egyptian fears of a Houthi threat.
“The Saudi leadership is trying to freak Egyptians out by telling them Ansar Allah intends to close Bab al-Mandab,” Daif Allah al-Shami, a member of the Houthi political bureau, told Mada in a recent interview in Sanaa. “The Gulf is pressing Egypt to send forces, and we had hoped that the Egyptians wouldn’t submit to these pressures.”
“We don’t target Egypt,” he says, but warns that “if Egypt sends troops to Yemen, this will be a dark spot in the history of the Egyptian army. They will be invading Yemen, just like they did before.”
Egyptian troops would face an arduous mission in Yemen’s mountainous terrain. Whether confronting Houthis or Al-Qaeda militants, they would be battling die-hard fighters hardened by decades of guerrilla warfare.
Retired army general Hossam Sweilam says “there’s a big difference between today’s war and yesterday’s story.” But for many observers, current events evoke Egypt’s military intervention in Yemen in the 1960s.
At the time, Egypt’s United Arab Republic with Syria had unraveled, and then-President Gamal Abdel Nasser threw his weight behind Yemeni republicans staging a coup against the country’s aging imamate, which was supported by Saudi Arabia.
Thus began a protracted war that scholars say Egypt was completely unprepared for, to the extent that Egyptians didn’t even have topographic maps of Yemen. By the war’s end in 1967, historians estimate that Egypt had sent 70,000 troops to Yemen, and lost 26,000 soldiers in the process.
The current conflict might bring back memories of Egypt’s last military foray in Yemen, but the latest operations are the result of both recent and deep historical rivalries that have little to do with Egypt.
The oil-rich kingdom of Saudi Arabia has long treated Yemen as its backyard, funneling billions of dollars into the pockets of Yemeni tribal, military and political leaders for decades to ensure their unbreakable loyalty.
After the 2011 uprising that eventually toppled longtime autocrat Saleh, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council (with UN and US support) struck a deal that gave Saleh immunity from prosecution in return for relinquishing power.
The deal split power between Saleh’s party (the General People’s Congress) and the opposition, under the umbrella of the Joint Meeting Parties. The Islah Party had the heaviest weight in the joint group.
For many of the Yemenis who staged the anti-Saleh uprising, this deal paved the way for the current conflict, since it left the centers of power — Saleh and the Islah Party — untouched, while keeping the rebel movement that had been part of the uprising out of the political equation.
Critics say that Islah worked to integrate its members in all government institutions and army units, and that the post-revolution president, Hadi, succumbed to Islah pressure.
Part of the GCC deal was to purge Yemen’s armed forces of Saleh loyalists and family members. This shakeup, alongside growing Islah influence, left Saleh searching for new allies outside the transitional power structure.
Those new allies were the Houthis.
While both the Houthis and Saleh deny any alliance, developments on the ground have shown otherwise.
Allying with disenchanted tribes in the north, the Houthi group fought its way from its heartland in Saada down to the capital, defeating tribes allied with Islah along the way.
Saada, old city market
In September 2014, Houthis — allegedly allied with army units antagonistic to Islah and loyal to Saleh — took over the capital. A few months later, they placed Hadi and members of his government under house arrest. In March 2015, Hadi fled to Aden, then to Saudi Arabia, pleading for a military intervention to roll the Houthis back as they continued to expand their territorial gains.
Houthis descend from the Zaydi Shia sect, and the group started as a revivalist Zaydi school that aimed to counter Wahhabi religious institutions known to be funded by Saudi. Saleh’s violent repression of the group then prompted its members to arm themselves. When founder Hussein al-Houthi was killed in 2004, it prompted a six-year insurgency.
The Zaydi are known to be closer to Sunnis than to Shias, and are also distinct from Iran’s “Twelver” form of Shia Islam. Despite this sectarian undertone, relations between Houthis and Iran have more of political nature than a religious one.
Observers believe that the Houthis ultimately entered into a relationship with Iran not for faith-based motives, but because they were estranged from other Arab countries, including Egypt.
“They found no hand extended to them, except the Iranians. I can’t blame them. This is very natural,” says Mohamed Azzan, a leading Zaydi scholar who opposes the Houthi movement. “This was a grave mistake and a stupid policy.”
But “Houthis have one choice now: to accept any political deal and reconciliation, whatever painful concessions they have to make,” says Azzan. “They must return to their normal size.”
Since the Saudi-led offensive began, the northern region, mainly populated by Zaydi Shia followers, had little choice but to side with Houthis — this area was the hardest hit during the initial bombardment (meanwhile, the southern region, which suffered the most from the Houthi-led armed campaign, has joined forces with the exiled government and the counter-insurgency coalition). The scale of destruction in northern Yemen has revived a decades-old hatred for the neighboring kingdom.
In a Qat chewing session one afternoon in Sanaa, Abdullah al-Rahbi, a senior employee in the Yemeni president’s office, recalls a widely echoed saying that sums up Yemen-Saudi relations.
“On his deathbed, the founder of Saudi Arabia left a will for his grandchildren: Saudi’s well-being is in Yemen’s ill-being, and Yemen’s well-being is in Saudi’s ill-being.”
Other historical conjunctures have also fueled the resentment.
Shortly after the foundation of the Saudi kingdom, in 1934 Saudis fought against northern Yemenis (who were ruled by a Zaydi imam) to gain control over the three oil-rich border regions of Najran, Jizan and Asir. The war ended with a peace deal demarcating the borderline to Saudi’s advantage. Many Yemenis don’t recognize the deal, and some use fake license plates emblazoned with the names of the three regions, symbolizing their dream of Yemen’s return to power over the disputed areas.
In a different lineup, Saudis backed the Zaydi royal family in its war against monarchy abolitionists in the 1960s, another source of historical ill-will that extends into the present.
The Saudi-led coalition has come under criticism for turning a blind eye to Al-Qaeda’s recent gains in Yemen amid the turmoil, and is now setting its sights on the extremist group. At the same time, Al-Qaeda is reportedly negotiating a withdrawal from Mukalla after handing power to a civilian council.
Al-Qaeda forces first entered Mukalla on April 2, 2015, when they took control of several army barracks, the central bank and the prison. The militants freed more than 300 inmates, including their notorious leader Khaled Baterfi.
In a new video released by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (the official name of the Yemeni branch), commander Jalal Belaid said Al-Qaeda militants were fighting on all fronts in Yemen, and that Mukalla was seized as a preemptive measure before the Houthis could capture it. He added that the city became a center for sending reinforcements to other fronts.
The group has since struck a power-sharing deal that ostensibly gives a civilian council power to administer the city affairs, while the militants police the streets alongside local tribesman. According to the deal, Al-Qaeda would eventually withdraw from the city when the council is powerful enough to secure it from the Houthis.
Over the past months, many of the group’s top leaders were killed in a series of US drone strikes in Mukalla. The strikes have dampened the group’s morale, but hardly hindered it from expanding.
In fact, critics say that the coalition’s efforts have been indirectly helping Al-Qaeda, as weapons airdropped to anti-Houthi forces have ended up in the hands of the extremist group. Moreover, liberated areas in Aden and elsewhere have been left with a profound power and security vacuum — and Al-Qaeda is the only group organized enough to fill it.
On Sunday, news agencies reported Al-Qaeda fighters sezied control of a district in Aden, and had likely bombed the city’s secret intelligence building the day before.
So far, the Saudi-led coalition’s airstrikes on Yemen have decimated military holdouts, weapon depots and the homes of the rebels’ leadership. A recent ground incursion led by UAE and Saudi forces (along with a wide array of southern separatist fighters, tribesmen and Islamic militant groups) helped recapture the southern city of Aden. The allied forces also regained control over several other cities in the south.
As the military tide shifts in favor of the coalition, this month Houthis held peace talks with the UN Envoy to Yemen in the Omani capital of Mascot. They reportedly discussed a ceasefire, the deployment of a peacekeeping force and the implementation of the Security Council resolution stipulating the withdrawal of armed groups from all cities.
A Houthi fighter in a Sanaa hospital
But the potential overture might be coming too late for the Yemeni people. Since the coalition’s offensive began on March 26, more than 4,000 civilians have died, more than 19,000 have been wounded and more than 1 million displaced, according to the International Committee of The Red Cross. At least 1,000 children have been killed or injured, according to the most recent UNICEF report.
The violence has pushed the already impoverished nation to the brink, and devastated its infrastructure.
“We are witness to a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen,” the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in an August 19 statement.
Furthermore, the World Food Program is warning of a famine in Yemen, saying in a press release that the total number of food insecure people has now surged to 13 million.
“Right now, the conflict-driver convergence between the lack of staple food, access to clean water and a diminished fuel supply creates the dawn of a perfect storm for the most vulnerable Yemeni people,” said Ertharin Cousin, WFP executive director, during a Wednesday briefing in Cairo that was attended by Mada Masr. She warned of potentially “irreversible damage.”
And reports of deadly fighting in the city of Taiz on Thursday suggest that the crisis is worsening, with dozens killed and major aid groups such as Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross pleading all sides to stop targeting civilians. After visiting Yemen this week, UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brian said “the scale of human suffering is almost incomprehensible.”
All photos courtesy of Maggie Michael.