A Saudi-led bombing campaign against the Houthis has escalated what was a civil war into a regional conflagration, pitting the Saudis and a host of Sunni Arab states against the rebel forces marshaled by the Houthis, who have Iranian backing. Egypt already dispatched a number of warships toward Aden; Egyptian officials have talked up the prospects of sending in troops should a ground invasion take place.
If that happens, Egypt would be treading on terrain haunted by the past.
In the 1960s, Egypt entered into a long, costly quagmire in Yemen. The Egyptian president at the time, Gamal Abdel Nasser, a secular autocrat and a champion of pan-Arabism, chose to intervene in Yemen in support of a republican coup led by military officers seeking to oust the country's monarchy in 1962. Nasser himself came to power the decade prior on the back of an officers' coup which overthrew Egypt's fusty constitutional monarchy. Now, he wanted to help a neighboring Arab nation follow in Egypt's mold.
But Saudi Arabia was set against this state of affairs and sought to return Yemen's ruling Imam to the throne, and pumped in arms and money to royalist militias. Ironically, these included many tribesmen from the Shiite Zaydi sect, which now forms the backbone of the Houthi rebellion the Saudis are so desperate to quash.
The tens of thousands of soldiers Egypt sent in as an expeditionary force into Yemen soon found themselves on the front line of a civil war, taking the lead in the defense of Yemeni republicanism. What followed was a long, difficult conflict that ground on for nearly a decade.
According to one historian's account, Yemen proved to be "a hive of wasps" for the Egyptians, who were unable defeat the well-equipped and well-funded royalist forces. The Saudis, Jordanians and the British -- who were still running a colonial protectorate around Aden -- all provided assistance to the royalists. The Egyptians, meanwhile, received tacit support from the Soviet Union.
Western media at the time painted the intervention as a classic blunder in a woebegone, faraway land. Nasser has "lavished ill-spared funds and fighting men on the backward, arid republic of Yemen," wrote Time in 1964.
"In this terrain," the New Republic explained with Orientalist relish in 1963, "the slow-moving Nile Valley peasant has proved a poor match for the barefoot, elusive tribesmen armed only with rifle and jambiya -- the vast, curved, razor-sharp dagger which every male Yemeni wears in his belt."
At the peak of deployments, Nasser committed as many as 70,000 Egyptian soldiers to Yemen. After the war's end in 1970, Yemen remained a republic, but Egypt had paid a terrible price: More than 10,000 Egyptian soldiers died and the country ran up massive war debts. The conflict has been dubbed "Egypt's Vietnam," and is cited as one of the reasons why the Egyptian military suffered such a withering defeat in the Six-Day War with Israel in 1967.
Now, it serves as a cautionary tale more for the Saudis than the Egyptians, whose participation in "Operation Decisive Storm," writes Egyptian blogger Nervana Mahhmoud, "is more a simple acknowledgment that the leadership in Cairo cannot afford to say no to Saudi Arabia." The kingdom has doled out billions of dollars in aid to the government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, a military officer who threw out the country's elected Islamists in 2013.
"Decisive Storm is not an operation to stabilize Yemen," writes Mahmoud. "It is an operation to restore the Saudis’ eroded pride in the face of Iran’s growing dominance in the region." There's no guarantee, though, that the current Saudi-led offensive will bring about the status quo its royals desire.
As has been the case often in Yemen's history, foreign adventures rarely go as planned.