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Nasser's Gamble

By Laura james | Posted 28th March 2013, 12:15
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Nasser’s Gamble: How Intervention in Yemen Caused the Six-Day War and the Decline of Egyptian Power
Jesse Ferris
Princeton University Press  356pp  £30.95

This book is a significant addition to the literature on the international relations of the Middle East in the 1960s, in particular Egyptian foreign policy and the Yemen Civil War. Ferris grounds his analysis in debates around Nasserism and the Arab Cold War. Briefly charting the backdrop to the Free Officers’ coup in Yemen, he then embarks on a detailed analysis of the Egyptian decision to intervene, setting this in the context not only of the Egyptian domestic situation and internal politics, but also of regional and international relations. The Soviet involvement in the Egyptian intervention is assessed and the impact on the US-Egyptian relationship is fully drawn out, particularly in the context of tensions with Saudi Arabia. Ferris also gives a good account of the developments on the ground in Yemen and Egypt, linking this back to deteriorating relations with the Soviet Union, Saudi Arabia and the United States. In the final chapter he considers the impact of Egypt’s Yemen adventure on the outbreak and conduct of the Six Day War in 1967.

The book’s subtitle suggests its core argument is that Yemen intervention caused the Six Day War, with all the consequent problems for Egypt. This does a disservice to the nuanced nature of Ferris’ arguments. While he provides an excellent account of a number of important linkages – military, political and economic; domestic, regional and international – between the two events, he does not in fact establish such a straightforward causal relationship. As he says, this book was ‘not the place for a detailed re-evaluation of the war’s causes’. A strong case is made that the Egyptian intervention in Yemen had an impact on the 1967 war, both directly and indirectly. But it is not within the scope of the book to balance and assess this against other factors – nor, except in the title, does it make the attempt.

This is an extremely readable scholarly study. Ferris writes lucidly, with a balanced approach to contentious questions. Well grounded in the existing literature, in the cases where he wishes to establish an alternative interpretation he is fair to opposing views. Many of the points made are broadly in line with the current academic consensus but there are three respects in which this book constitutes a significant advance, making it required reading for those interested in the history of the Middle East.

The first is the range of sources. As well as Arabic-language Egyptian and Yemeni sources, Ferris has accessed newly released US documents not available to earlier authors. These are balanced by the use of sources from the former Soviet Union. As a result, the international-level analysis of US-Egyptian-Soviet tensions is powerful and convincing. Second, the book contains interesting and careful assessments of how problems in the relationship between President Nasser and his military chief, Marshal Amer, might have contributed to the intervention in Yemen, drawing critically on the different perspectives presented in the various Egyptian memoirs. Finally, Ferris provides a strong analysis of the economic factors underlying the domestic political developments in Egypt and its foreign policy choices. Such an integrated approach is rarely found in earlier studies and its inclusion here allows Ferris to make sense of a number of previously inexplicable events.

Laura James is the author of Nasser at War (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).


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