Nasser's Gamble: How Intervention in Yemen Caused the Six-Day War and the Decline of Egyptian Power

Nasser's Gamble: How Intervention in Yemen Caused the Six-Day War and the Decline of Egyptian Power

Nasser's Gamble: How Intervention in Yemen Caused the Six-Day War and the Decline of Egyptian Power

Nasser's Gamble: How Intervention in Yemen Caused the Six-Day War and the Decline of Egyptian Power


Nasser's Gamble draws on declassified documents from six countries and original material in Arabic, German, Hebrew, and Russian to present a new understanding of Egypt's disastrous five-year intervention in Yemen, which Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser later referred to as "my Vietnam." Jesse Ferris argues that Nasser's attempt to export the Egyptian revolution to Yemen played a decisive role in destabilizing Egypt's relations with the Cold War powers, tarnishing its image in the Arab world, ruining its economy, and driving its rulers to instigate the fatal series of missteps that led to war with Israel in 1967.

Viewing the Six Day War as an unintended consequence of the Saudi-Egyptian struggle over Yemen, Ferris demonstrates that the most important Cold War conflict in the Middle East was not the clash between Israel and its neighbors. It was the inter-Arab struggle between monarchies and republics over power and legitimacy. Egypt's defeat in the "Arab Cold War" set the stage for the rise of Saudi Arabia and political Islam.

Bold and provocative, Nasser's Gamble brings to life a critical phase in the modern history of the Middle East. Its compelling analysis of Egypt's fall from power in the 1960s offers new insights into the decline of Arab nationalism, exposing the deep historical roots of the Arab Spring of 2011.


A low-resolution photograph of Egypt’s international position around 1960 would have looked something like this: For the first time in centuries, perhaps millennia, Egypt was completely free of foreign domination. The great powers of the East and of the West competed against each other to arm Egypt’s military, build its industry, and feed its people. Egyptian power extended deep into the Levant, further than at any time since Muhammad Ali. Egypt’s charismatic president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, was the undisputed leader of the Arab world. Peace reigned, thanks to an astute leadership’s assiduous avoidance of war.

A second snapshot taken a decade later would have revealed a dramatically different picture: Following the secession of Syria in 1961 and Israel’s conquest of the Sinai Peninsula in 1967, the territory under Egypt’s effective control had shrunk by 20 percent. Nasser’s reputation was in tatters, shredded by serial setbacks at home and abroad. Egypt’s economy lay in debt-ridden ruin, its future dependent on Saudi largesse. Ties with the United States had disintegrated. And the defense of the realm from Israeli attack relied on a Soviet division in quasi-occupation of the Nile Valley.

The reflexive answer to the question “What happened?” is “June 1967.” Looking back nearly half a century later, Israel’s crushing victory over Egypt looms so large that it makes other factors appear small and insignificant in comparison. Viewed in retrospect, the Six-Day War is an obvious watershed separating the age of Egyptian ascendance from the following two generations of inglorious stagnation. But a closer look at the gloomy picture of Egypt post-’67 reveals that many of its ingredients were already present on the eve of the Six-Day War. Egypt still possessed the Sinai desert, but its territorial expansion had long since ground to a halt; Nasser was still the most popular Arab leader, but his image was tarnished; Saudi financial aid was not yet a factor, but Egypt’s economy hovered on the brink of disaster; diplomatic relations with the United States endured, but they had sunk to their lowest point since 1952; and although the Soviet armed forces were not yet welcome on Egyptian soil, Cairo’s dependency on aid from Moscow had never been greater.

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