- Nasser’s Gamble: How Intervention in Yemen Caused the Six-Day War and the Decline of Egyptian Power, by Jesse Ferris
The Yemen War of 1962–1970 often appears as a largely forgotten episode of Egyptian military intervention into a country [End Page 478] known for its well-armed, tribal population and its willingness to wage unrelenting combat against foreign invaders. To the extent this conflict is remembered at all, it is often characterized as “Nasser’s Vietnam,” a long, frustrating, guerrilla war that dissipated the strength of the Egyptian Army in the five years before the June 1967 war with Israel. In reexamining this important but overlooked 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 intervention 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 during the “mature phase” (p. 299) of the Arab Cold War, which involved furious ideological conflict between revolutionary republics such as Egypt and conservative monarchies led by Saudi Arabia. As with some more recent wars, Egypt’s intervention into Yemen was supposed to have been easy. Egyptian planners believed that the Yemeni revolutionaries struggling to create a pro-Nasser republic could brush aside reactionary forces with only the assistance of a limited number of Egyptian commandos for a couple of weeks (p. 62). Instead, Yemen turned into a “hive of wasps” (p. 224) requiring the Egyptians 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 support for the new regime plummeted. Egyptian 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 providing generous grants of food aid. The Soviets took advantage of Cairo’s declining ability to play off the superpowers and began placing tough demands on Egypt. As the economy suffered and international problems multiplied, withdrawing from Yemen seemed important, but there was also the question of sunk costs. The Egyptian public 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. The danger of tens of thousands of disgruntled soldiers returning to Egypt frightened Nasser for a number of reasons. In particular, the Egyptian president feared a situation in which a coup might spring from defeated military forces just as his own coup in 1952 had its roots in the defeat of the Egyptian army in the 1948–1949 Arab-Israeli war.
The regional situation changed in spring 1967 as Syrian-Israeli tensions flared and threatened to engulf the region in war. While many authors portray Nasser as being sucked into this conflict by faulty Soviet intelligence regarding a possible Israeli attack on Syria, Ferris portrays him as seizing the perceived opportunity presented...