One reason why I had wanted to visit Egypt was to do some research there on Yemen. Although it is well known that Egypt has fought four wars with Israel (in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973), Egypt also fought a less well known war in North Yemen.
The history of this war is bizarre. In September 1962, the Egyptian leader Nasser sent thousands of his soldiers to North Yemen to help a Nasserist “republican” revolution which had overthrown the country’s king. Nasser seemed to hope that the ouster of the Yemeni monarchy would quickly be followed by the demise of the Saudis and the other royal families of the Arabian Peninsula. Instead, the overthrown Yemeni king was able to rally many of the tribes to his cause and put the Yemeni republicans and their Egyptian allies on the defensive.
Even with Soviet military assistance, the Egyptians had to fight hard just to keep the major cities in republican hands. Nasser himself grew disillusioned with the adventure, and at one point in the mid-1960s described Yemen as “Egypt’s Vietnam.”
In the wake of Israel’s rapid defeat of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria in June 1967, Nasser decided he could not afford the Yemeni adventure any longer, and so withdrew his troops. The Yemeni republican cause appeared to be doomed. But then an odd thing happened. As soon as their Egyptian protectors left, the Yemeni republicans grew stronger. They beat back several royalist offensives. The royalist coalition fell apart, and in 1970 the war came to an end. Apparently, a lot of the tribes supporting the royalist cause didn’t so much object to the new Yemeni republican government but to the large Egyptian military presence which had come with it.
There is more open discussion of foreign policy issues in Egypt than in most other Arab countries. Egyptian scholars and journalists have written extensively about the various Arab-Israeli wars. And while the Egyptian government has not opened its archives generally, several high level Egyptian officials have had access to them or have revealed information about high-level decision-making to an extent that rarely occurs in the Arab world. Mohammed Heikal’s several books on Egyptian foreign relations, based on his own personal access to Nasser and other high-level officials, are especially well known.
But while Egyptians have written much about their wars with Israel and their relations with the superpowers, I could find very little Egyptian literature about Nasser’s intervention in Yemen. Maybe this work just hadn’t been translated into English, I thought. So while in Cairo, I hoped to interview Egyptian officials and scholars about Cairo’s complicated involvement in the Yemeni civil war.
I found that scholars and officials in Egypt were eager to talk about the various Arab-Israeli wars, about which they seemed to have memorized what had happened in enormous detail, and Egypt’s relations with both Moscow and Washington at great length. But they seemed strangely reluctant to talk about Yemen.
Whenever I would bring the subject up, my Egyptian interlocutors would ignore me and talk about something else. When I would press them about it, they would respond that they didn’t really know much about Yemen; it wasn’t their specialty.
I would ask, “Then who is a specialist on Yemen here in Egypt?”
Most people said they did not know. Once, though, I was told, “Well, there is someone who wrote a dissertation on this subject at Cairo University.”
“How can I contact him?”
“It isn’t easy. He doesn’t really have a job. And he doesn’t have a phone at home. But if I see him, I’ll tell him to contact you.”
I never heard from him.
I did, however, meet with Ismail Fahmy, the former Egyptian foreign minister. I interviewed him at his elegant apartment in the exclusive Zamalyk section of Cairo.
Just as in every other interview, I could not get Fahmy to say anything about Yemen, though he was quite voluble about the Arab-Israeli conflict as well as the superpowers. I finally grew exasperated and demanded to know why neither he nor anyone else would talk with me about Yemen. Egyptian forces had fought there for five years. Nasser had called it Egypt’s Vietnam. Surely the experience in Yemen equaled the Arab-Israeli conflict as something significant for Egyptian foreign policy specialists to reflect upon.
Fahmy seemed a little taken aback by this outburst. “Oh yes,” he said, “the Yemeni civil war is definitely worthwhile for us to think about. The Yemenis defeated us, just like the Israelis did. But the defeats were very different from each other.
“We feel no shame at being defeated by the Israelis,” he continued. “Israel, after all, was strongly backed by America and the West. The USSR did not help us nearly as much as America helped Israel. We could hardly be expected to prevail against Israel. Just having fought them at all when the odds were so heavily against us makes us feel heroic.
“But Yemen was different. This was a nation of primitive tribesmen. There was no American support for the royalists. The Soviets gave lots of help to us. We should have won that war, but we lost it. And the fact that the republicans who were about to be defeated when we left then went on to win afterward just adds insult to injury.
“We thought it would be so simple when we first went there. But it is a very complicated country. We never understood it.
“Now do you see why we don’t like to talk about it?”
Excerpt from Middle Eastern Sketches (1997).