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

By Terrill, W. Andrew | The Middle East Journal, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

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


Terrill, W. Andrew, The Middle East Journal


EGYPT Nasser's Gamble: How Intervention in Yemen Caused the Six-Day War and the Decline of Egyptian Power, by Jesse Ferris. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012. $45.

The Yemen War of 1962-1970 often appears as a largely forgotten episode of Egyptian military intervention into a coun- try known for its well-armed, tribal popula- tion and its willingness to wage unrelenting combat against foreign invaders. To the ex- tent this conflict is remembered at all, it is often characterized as "Nasser's Vietnam," a long, frustrating, guerrilla war that dissipat- ed the strength of the Egyptian Army in the five years before the June 1967 war with Is- rael. In reexamining this important but over- looked war, Jesse Ferris adds a tremendous amount of meticulously-researched detail to our understanding of the conflict while underscoring the war's significance within the regional history of that era. Ferris also elegantly makes the case that the interven- tion in Yemen helped lead to the Egyptian brinkmanship that ignited the June 1967 war with Israel, which in turn led to the subsequent reordering of the Arab regional political system.

Egypt's intervention into Yemen took place shortly after a September 1962 coup in which Yemen's ruling Imam was deposed by a group of army officers inspired by the Egyptians. The intervention occurred dur- ing the "mature phase" (p. 299) of the Arab Cold War, which involved furious ideologi- cal conflict between revolutionary republics such as Egypt and conservative monarchies led by Saudi Arabia. As with some more re- cent wars, Egypt's intervention into Yemen was supposed to have been easy. Egyptian planners believed that the Yemeni revolu- tionaries struggling to create a pro-Nasser republic could brush aside reactionary forc- es with only the assistance of a limited num- ber of Egyptian commandos for a couple of weeks (p. 62). Instead, Yemen turned into a "hive of wasps" (p. 224) requiring the Egyp- tians to escalate the number of troops in the country for their forces to remain capable of effectively waging war. At the height of the Egyptian presence, they may have deployed as many as 70,000 troops in Yemen, a huge portion of their army. Still, this force could not comprehensively defeat their Yemeni enemies. Royalist tribal forces with strong financial and material support from Saudi Arabia fought hard and effectively to defeat the Egyptian-backed republican regime. Moreover, once the Egyptian-supported Yemeni government began to appear totally subservient before Cairo, indigenous sup- port for the new regime plummeted. Egyp- tian leaders then felt they had to defend the revolutionary government themselves if they wanted it to survive.

While Egypt found it easy to enter and then expand the Yemen War, it was much more difficult to extricate itself from the conflict. The war and the threat Nasser presented to Saudi Arabia also severely damaged Egypt's relations with the United States, which had previously been provid- ing generous grants of food aid. The Soviets took advantage of Cairo's declining abil- ity to play off the superpowers and began placing tough demands on Egypt. As the economy suffered and international prob- lems multiplied, withdrawing from Yemen seemed important, but there was also the question of sunk costs. The Egyptian pub- lic had endured a number of shortages and other economic deprivation due to the war; it would be difficult to explain that this was for nothing. And then there were the soldiers. …

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