Thinking Aloud: A History Lesson for Egypt

Mar. 27, 2015 by Darius

Today, the Egyptian government announced that it is willing to send ground troops to Yemen to fight the Houthis.  This wouldn’t be the first time an Egyptian military government sent troops to fight Zaydi tribesmen in Yemen.  Let’s have a look at how the first time worked out.

In 1962, a military coup in Yemen toppled the ruling Imam (effectively a monarch).  The resulting government modeled itself on that of Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser.  Quickly, though, fighting broke out between the new Yemeni government and northern tribes who supported the Imam’s return.  The Yemeni government appealed to Nasser, who dispatched Egyptian troops to Yemen.

The Egyptians hoped to do exactly what other nations have tried since: use airpower to batter guerilla fighters while not committing many ground troops.  That strategy didn’t work any better for Egypt in Yemen than when the US tried it in Vietnam, the USSR tried it in Afghanistan, or the US tried it in Afghanistan.  Soon, the Egyptians held only the major cities, while the royalist tribesmen roamed at will in the countryside.  Egypt began to commit more and more ground troops.  By 1965, there were 70,000 Egyptian soldiers in Yemen.

By the time Nasser pulled out of Yemen completely at the end of 1967,  tens of thousands of Egyptian soldiers were killed and tens of thousands more had been tied down in Yemen during Egypt’s humiliating war with Israel earlier that year.

There are a few important differences between the Yemeni conflict of the 1960s and the present, the most important of which is the role of Saudi Arabia, which supported the Shia rebels financially and militarily in the 1960s.  (Saudi Arabia always prefers to see a monarch installed when given a choice.)  However, given how disastrous the last Yemen expedition was for Egypt, one would think this history should give the current Egyptian government pause before sending troops.

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