CAIRO — Why is Egypt jumping into Yemen?

Supporters of Egyptian military participation in the coalition fighting the Houthi rebels' takeover in Yemen say it's important to help ensure the national security of the Arab Gulf states in confronting Iran's expanding influence in the Arabian Peninsula.

Opponents see this military operation as a continuation of the politics of polarization between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, and they believe Egypt should avoid conflicts that don't involve its direct interests, and are not necessary for its own national security.

Another rationale behind Egypt's military intervention in Yemen is the supposed threat from the Houthis in light of their capture of the Yemeni port city of Mocha, which is just a few kilometers from the Bab al-Mandab strait that strategically straddles international maritime routes through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal.

It is on this basis that the Egyptian navy deployed four of its battleships to secure the Gulf of Aden last Thursday.

Commenting on the official state narrative regarding Egyptian military intervention in Yemen, retired Brigadier General Gamal Mazloum says that Egypt had a duty to participate in Operation "Decisive Storm."

"Egypt has supported numerous Arab states in several critical circumstances," Mazloum tells Mada Masr. "National security threats to the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) represent threats to Egypt's own national security."

He adds a reminder that the Arab Gulf states have supported the current Egyptian leadership since it ousted the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in 2013. "Hence Egypt is morally and nationally obliged to support these countries when their security is threatened," Mazloum says.

Indeed, the GCC states have provided Egypt with continuous support — both financially and in the form of petroleum products — since the army-led overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood on July 3, 2013. The GCC's most recent aid and investment package is estimated at around $12 billion, which the Gulf states pledged to Cairo during the Egypt Economic Development Conference in Sharm El-Sheikh earlier this month.

Training exercises of Egypt's Rapid Response Forces. Photo: Harald Hansen

Mazloum agrees with the state's official announcements — issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Egyptian presidency — concerning Egypt's participation in military operations. These statements confirm Egypt's political and military support for the steps taken by the "international coalition of states to support the legitimate government in Yemen." This intervention "stems from [Egypt's] historic responsibilities towards Arab national security, and the security of the Arab Gulf region."

Saudi rules

Cairo is currently coordinating its efforts with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies involved "towards Egyptian participation through its airforce and navy — along with the use of ground troops, if necessary — within the framework of the coalition, in defending Yemen's security and stability, while preserving its territorial integrity and maintaining the security of its brotherly Arab states."

But retired ambassador Hussein Haridi, Egypt's former deputy foreign minister, says that the Houthi threat to Egyptian national security via their control of the Bab al-Mandab strait has been overstated.

"No one is capable of closing the strait, or bearing the international consequences associated with such an act," Haridi says. "Even during the turbulent years of the Iran-Iraq War, the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf was never blocked or shut down — out of fear of the intolerable international repercussions to any state or political force involved in doing so. And the same applies to the Bab al-Mandab strait."

While Brigadier General Mazloum agrees that the Houthis don't have the necessary strength to close the strait or threaten maritime navigation through it, he says Egypt can't simply leave this to chance.

"The Houthis lack the numbers and the capacity to control the strait, as their military force does not exceed 40,000 fighters," Mazloum says. "Furthermore, Bab al-Mandab is protected by the presence of U.S., UK, French and German naval vessels — as well as those of Arab, and other countries — off the Somali coast, by the other side of the strait."

Mazloum attributes this heavy naval presence in the strait to the years 2008 and 2009, when piracy grew rampant off the coast of Somalia. This prompted the deployment of maritime forces to this crucial international trade route. Despite this heavy maritime security in the strait, Egyptian authorities had to be cautious.

Amr Abdel Rahman, an Egyptian political researcher and specialist in the Arab world's democratic transitions, believes that securing Egypt's strategic interests in the Bab al-Mandab strait could be better guaranteed through other means.

Al-Sisi offers his support. Photo: Egyptian presidency

"The real threat to shipping in the Bab al-Mandab strait is the chaos that emerges from this war," Rahman wrote on his Facebook page. "I do not grasp how any sane person could imagine that the Houthis, for example, are more dangerous than al-Qaeda (in the Arabian Peninsula), which is based just kilometers away from the strait, or the new arrivals affiliated to the Islamic State."

Shia v. Sunni

Rahman adds, "If our foreign policy and defense policy were not so dependent on the whims of Arab Gulf states, we could have found reasonable diplomatic resolutions with the Iranians in these regards — while not excluding any of Egypt's military options in the future."

The U.S. and UK have openly announced their support for military actions against the Houthis in Yemen. The U.S. National Security Council has condemned the armed Houthi actions against Yemen's elected government, and announced its support for military strikes led by Saudi Arabia and its regional partners, along with America's provision of both logistical and intelligence support in Operation "Decisive Storm."

As a former diplomat, Haridi rejects the idea of military action against the Houthis in Yemen. He hopes that military operations will be halted at the earliest opportunity, adding that he doubts it can lead to a lasting resolution to Yemen's political crisis.

Haridi sees what's happening in Yemen now as being an extension of the region's Sunni-versus-Shia sectarianism and accompanying political alliances that govern the region.

Abdel Rahman explains that the main basis for his opposition to Egypt's military intervention in Yemen is Cairo's long-term autonomy. "I oppose Egyptian participation, not only because the Egyptian army has no real interest in fighting this war, but because this will place the Egyptian army at the disposal of Saudi rulers and their allies in the future."