The past few months have witnessed a remarkable and increasing Egyptian interest in the developments of the Yemeni crisis. The invitation extended by Cairo to the Yemeni Prime Minister to visit it, its reception ceremony for him in July 2020, and the meeting of the non-resident Egyptian ambassador to Yemen with the Head of the Southern Transitional Council (STC) in November 2020 were the most important developments and Egyptian diplomatic moves in this regard. These were considered by observers as indications of Egypt's desire to play a greater role In Yemen and strengthen its presence in the south of the Red Sea to curb and contain the growing concerns and threats to its national security, especially those resulting from the increasing Turkish intervention in Yemen and its territorial waters.
This paper investigates the indicators of the recent increase in Egyptian involvement in the Yemeni scene, analyses its implications, and tries to foresee the future prospects for this role in the short and medium terms.
The most prominent recent developments and Egyptian moves, which are considered an indication of Cairo's increasing interest in the Yemeni issue and its developments, can be presented as follows:
as announced – came in the context of coordination to follow up on completing the implementation of what was agreed upon during Maeen Abdulmalik's visit in July 2020 to Egypt, and coordinating positions regarding current developments, including, for example, pushing for the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement (RA), and avoiding the danger posed by the oil tanker Safer. Indeed, Egypt's ambassador Farouk (accompanied by the official in charge of the Yemeni political file Mohamed el-Erian) met with the head of the STC Aidarous al-Zubaidi, on 19 November 2020, in a remarkable and interesting development, being the first official public communication between Cairo and the STC.
Cairo's recent intensification of its contacts with the internationally recognised government of President Hadi reflects Cairo's tendency to accelerate the pace of its involvement and enhance its presence in the Yemeni scene in a way that enhances its leadership role and position in the region, given the importance of what Yemen constitutes for it in terms of strategic depth, national security, and vital sphere of influence.
The Egyptian diplomatic moves in Yemen are driven by the security concern to protect sea lanes in Bab al-Mandab and curb the growing influence of rival regional powers such as Turkey and Iran in its strategic depth, especially since it has, in recent times, already been fearing a direct Turkish intervention or through the arm of the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen (Islah (Reform) Party) which would open a third front for it in Bab al-Mandab alongside Libya and Ethiopia, especially after the emergence of many indications of increased Turkish involvement and interference in the Yemeni issue, mainly the establishment and financing of camps for its allies in the Islah Party in the Taiz Governorate overlooking the Red Sea, as well as Ankara’s actions to strengthen its presence in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, most notably its assumption of the leadership of the Combined Task Force 151 (CTF-151) to combat piracy in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia in the Indian Ocean, between 25 June and 10 December 2020, in addition to its announcement on 25 January 2021 of extending the presence of its air and naval forces in the Gulf of Aden, Somali territorial waters, the Arabian Sea and adjacent areas for another year.
The Egyptian ambassador’s meeting with the Head of the STC at the latter’s residence in Riyadh (which was delayed compared to the many meetings of ambassadors of the countries sponsoring peace in Yemen) indicates Cairo’s desire to approach effectively this component that was able to impose itself as an actor in the south of the country. While this meeting may have focused on pushing for the formation of the new government in support of the efforts of the Arab coalition to implement the RA, and in the context of coordinating efforts to curb the escalating threats from the arms of Iran and Turkey to Arab national security and the security of the Red Sea, and although Cairo continues to be reticent about the STC’s call for secession from North Yemen, according to observers, the move is considered evidence of Cairo’s increasing conviction of the importance of cooperating with him, given the common goals, interests and threats, namely protecting Bab al-Mandab, the Gulf of Aden and shipping lanes, as well as their common position on political Islam groups and organisations, especially the Muslim Brotherhood.
As part of its efforts to activate its role and revitalise its presence in Yemen, Egypt seeks to strengthen its relationship with its allies and broaden the circle of its local friends, and is keen to confirm that it is a reliable ally. For example, the available evidence indicates that Cairo has been pushing in the direction of the rise of some figures and allowing them to retain their positions in the legitimate authority, most notably Maeen Abdulmalik, who remained in his position as the head of the recently formed government, and earlier on the Speaker of Parliament Sultan al-Barakani, two figures who share with the regime of President Sisi rejection of the growing influence of Turkey and its allies in the Islah party.
Despite the positive signs shown by Saudi Arabia towards improving the relationship with Turkey at the G20 summit and later through reconciliation with Qatar, there is nothing in Cairo's recent moves that suggests any conflict of positions with Riyadh on the Yemeni issue. On the contrary, more harmony and coordination appeared, especially with regard to weakening the influence of the Islah Party in Yemen, given that the Yemeni Prime Minister confirmed in an interview with the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram that his government “will not accept the existence of armed groups outside state institutions, and will not actively accept groups associated to non-national agendas”. The Egyptian Prime Minister was more explicit when he announced during a joint press conference with Abdulmalik that Egypt rejects any “non-Arab” interference in Yemeni affairs, in a clear reference to Turkey, especially since those statements coincided with increasing news that leaders of the Islah Party have been mobilising in Taiz and forming armed factions with Turkish support and Qatari funding, and the Yemeni Brotherhood's calls for Turkey to intervene militarily in the Yemeni war.
Taking into account that the implementation of the RA (as an approach adopted by Cairo as well) would reduce the penetration of the Yemeni Brotherhood into the legitimate government, provide a temporary solution to the struggle of the parties opposed to the Houthi group and unify their efforts to fight against it, and given that the meeting that brought together Aidarous al-Zubaidi, Head of the STC, and the Egyptian ambassador to Saudi Arabia and non-resident ambassador to Yemen, immediately followed by a meeting between the latter and the Saudi ambassador to Yemen Mohammed Al Jaber, and days after the Saudi Council of Senior Scholars classified the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group, it could be concluded that the Egyptian ambassador may have urged the STC to offer incentives and/or concessions with regard to the implementation of the military and security sides, to push and accelerate the announcement of the new government headed by Maeen Abdulmalik, with the aim of achieving a breakthrough in the Yemeni crisis file before the end of 2020, albeit to mend fissures in the front of the Legitimacy to confront the risks of the growth of the Islah party and the Houthis in Yemen and block the way for Turkish and Iranian moves that undermine Arab national security.
Prospects for the Egyptian role in Yemen
In the light of the above, the future of Egyptian involvement in the Yemeni crisis can be foreseen and its possible prospects explored briefly as follows:
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