By Brian Whitaker
Amid speculation that Egypt may send ground troops to Yemen, and numerous reminders that the last time it did so – under Nasser in the 1960s – the adventure proved disastrous, President Sisi sought to allay concerns yesterday.
"We will not harm our country and brotherly countries with wrong calculations," he said after a meeting with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
Egypt is providing naval and air support for the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen but has remained non-committal about ground forces, previously saying they would be sent "if necessary". Yesterday's statement seems to make that prospect more distant.
Sisi also pointed away from the use of ground forces by highlighting Egypt's naval activities in Bab al-Mandab at the southern end of the Red Sea where the coasts of Yemen and eastern Africa are separated by only 20 miles of water.
"Securing navigation in the Red Sea and protecting Bab al-Mandab strait is a top priority for Egypt's national security," he said.
There is a reasonable argument that this serves Egypt's national interest – which would probably not be the case if Egypt engaged in fighting on the ground in Yemen. Any disruption of sea traffic through Bab al-Mandab would have a knock-on effect for Egypt by hitting revenues from the Suez Canal.
Given that his regime is being bankrolled by Arab Gulf states, Sisi probably has no option but to support their military campaign in Yemen to some extent – though that is not to say he wouldn't be inclined to support it anyway. Since the US and Britain have declared their backing for intervention, Sisi may also be calculating that if he appears to be playing a useful role on the international stage, his seizure of power and the ensuing domestic repression will be overlooked.
But there's a complicating factor which would become more apparent if Egypt became directly involved on Yemeni soil. Sisi has built his presidency around combating the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, having labelled them as terrorists. This was not a problem while Arab Gulf states (with the exception of Qatar) were peddling a similar line but now, as they step up the anti-Shia rhetoric, their attitude towards the Brotherhood has softened.
In Yemen, the local equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood is the Islah party. Islah is a long-time foe of the Houthis and, consequently, is backing the Saudi-led intervention. A statement from Islah last week, posted on the Brotherhood's official website, said:
"We offer our thanks, appreciation and support for the coalition countries, led by Saudi Arabia, who have responded to the request of the of the country's legitimate President, who is responsible for the protection, security, stability and safety of the homeland and its people as well as the country's resources."
According to reports from Yemen, the Houthis responded to this by accusing Islah of high treason, ordering the party to be dissolved and "arresting" some of its officials in Sanaa. That, of course, is very similar to what Sisi has been doing in Egypt – though in Yemen it's being done by his opponents from the Zaidi branch of Shia Islam.
Although Islah is generally considered to be part of the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan Web describes it as the organisation's "political arm" in Yemen) it is a diverse movement which includes tribal elements – most notably the Ahmar clan – and others who took part in the "youth revolution" against the Saleh regime. One of its female members, Tawakkol Karman, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.
At the other end of the Islah spectrum, another senior figure is Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, an erstwhile friend of Osama bin Laden who is listed by the US as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist and claims to have developed a herbal cure for HIV/AIDS. In Yemen, Zindani founded the controversial Iman university which attracted would-be jihadists from all over the world, including John Walker Lindh, the "American Taliban".
Forcibly closing the university and driving away its 6,000 students was one of the Houthis' first acts when they seized control of Sanaa last September.
As a rule of thumb, whatever benefits the Houthis in Yemen harms Islah, and vice versa. This was a consideration last July, when the Houthis conquered Amran – an Islah stronghold – in the run-up to occupying Sanaa. According to some accounts, President Hadi initially refrained from attacking the Houthis in Amran because western governments advised him this would have the undesirable effect of bolstering Islah.
Sisi, if he sends Egyptian troops into Yemen, will be faced with a similar problem. He could end up fighting the Muslim Brotherhood at home while defending it in Yemen.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Sunday, 5 April 2015
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Sunday, 5 April 2015