Prospects of Egypt’s Growing Role in Yemen

EPC | 31 Jan 2021

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.

Indicators

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:

  • The visit of Yemeni Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik to Cairo as the head of a high-ranking delegation in July 2020, which came at the invitation of his Egyptian counterpart Mostafa Madbouly, and was met with a great hospitality and reception from the Egyptian side, during which he met President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and senior Egyptian officials. Its most prominent result was the agreement to activate the mechanism of the Higher Joint Committee between the two countries. According to a briefing by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry regarding the most important efforts and features of its achievements during 2020, aspects of Egyptian support to Yemen were discussed during the visit, especially with regard to technical support for Yemeni staff in various fields, including diplomatic staff, and the use of Egyptian expertise at the stage of reconstruction and restructuring of Yemeni state institutions. Indeed, the visit was followed by several visits by Yemeni delegations to meet with their Egyptian counterparts, and agreements were concluded to develop the cooperation mechanism, especially in the fields of transport, electricity and energy. The Egyptian army also sent two medical aid planes to the legitimate government to confront the novel coronavirus epidemic, a few days after the visit of Maeen Abdulmalik. This reflects an increasing desire by Egypt to enhance its presence and interest in Yemeni affairs.
  • The recent intensification by the non-resident Egyptian ambassador to Yemen Ahmed Farouk of his diplomatic meetings and movements. In addition to his meetings with representatives of the legitimate government, headed by Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik (on 1 October 2020), former Foreign Minister Mohammed al-Hadrami (late in the same month), former Minister of Electricity and Energy Mohammed al-Anani (8 December 2020), and Minister of Foreign Affairs in the power-sharing government Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak (on 11 January 2021), which –

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.

  • Recently, on 11 January 2021, Egyptian Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouly made a phone call to his Yemeni counterpart Maeen Abdulmalik, in which Madbouly offered his congratulations to Abdulmalik "on the formation of the new government and his safety and all members of the government from the terrorist attack that targeted Aden International Airport", confirming, according to the Saba News Agency affiliated to the Legitimacy, "his country's full support for the [new] government to carry out its tasks and responsibilities". During the call, "also discussed were issues of concern to the two countries and the coordination of common positions towards them in various files at the national, regional and international levels".

Significance

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:

  • The increased Turkish involvement in the Yemeni conflict, including support for the armed formations affiliated with the Islah Party, could push Egypt to become an active belligerent to contain Turkey in Yemen, by supporting and training Islah’s opponents in the western coast and south of the country, and increasing its activity in Yemeni territorial waters.
  • As for the Houthis, no matter how much they are able to expand on the western coast and threaten navigation in the Red Sea, they are constantly keen to send messages to reassure Cairo that they would not threaten its national security or harm its interests, mainly represented in the continued flow of navigation through the Suez Canal. Nevertheless, Cairo always emphasised the existence of a force ready to intervene to secure navigation in the Red Sea and Bab al-Mandab, and in the past, it sent warships to the Red Sea in the early hours of the launch of Operation Decisive Storm. Thus, the continuation of the war and the increasing threats of the Houthis will be a justification for Egypt to increase its military patrols in international waters off the Yemeni coast.
  • Despite its participation in the Arab coalition and its repeated, strongly-worded condemnations of the Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia and civilian targets inside Yemen, Cairo realises that it continues to be considered a credible mediator among the various actors in the Yemeni conflict, whether they are the Gulf states, the Yemeni government, the separatist Southerners, or even the Houthis. It is a feature that is expected to be used effectively by Cairo in the future to contribute to the advancement of peace efforts. In this context, Cairo appears to continue to maintain communication channels with the Houthis. In December 2020, it succeeded in persuading them to release an Egyptian captain held by them for months, in a move that was not the first of its kind, as it was preceded by its ability to release 32 Egyptians in February 2020, and dozens before them in the past years, from the grip of the Houthi group. Thus, it is likely to be able to play a greater role, directly or through intermediaries, to pressure and influence the Houthi group, at least to solve some of the issues that concern it, including, for example, the problem of the oil tanker Safer and the continuing threats to international shipping lanes in the Red Sea.

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