Beirut, Lebanon — Tension is building between Egypt and Libya, and the Soviets have warned Egypt against launching any aggression against their allies in Libya. One Arab source here close to Soviet thinking told the Monitor definitively that "the Soviets will not permit the defeat of the ultramodern arms they have in Libya."
Soviet arms shipments to Col. Muammar Qaddafi's revolutionary regime started in a big way in 1976, when an arms deal reported to be worth $1 billion was concluded.Since then, the arms flow has been constant.
Libya now is said to have supplies of Soviet MIG-25 fighter planes, the latest model T-72 Soviet battle tanks, and even advanced Soviet submarines.
Certainly, the defeat of such a force in battlefield conditions would constitute a tremendous blow for Soviet prestige. The Soviet news agency Tass issued a clear warning when it headed a recent commentary on the dispute, "Cairo plays with fire."
The wording of the Soviet commentary has been compared here with that of notes delivered by the Soviets to several Arab states in April 1977, also warnig them that Egypt was preparing a war against Libya. Three months later, the feared fighting erupted, in the northern parts of Libya's long desert border with Egypt.
Accounts of the outcome of the July 1977 battles conflicted sharply. But after a few days, the two sides were brought to a negotiating table by Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat, and the actual hostilities stopped, though verbal slanging has continued to this day.
The informant close to the Soviets says that in 1977 the Egyptians called of their incursion into Libya under pressure from the United States. He said that at that time, the US still thought Colonel Qaddafi could be rescued from communist influence.
This time around, many conditions are different. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat has moved even closer into the United States fold, and joint US-Egyptian Air Force exercises planed for next month symbolize the new relation between the two countries.
Mr. Sadat meanwhile has completely cut his links with the Arab world, which in 1977 moved quickly to damp down the dispute.
This time, Colonel Qaddafi already can rely on the automatic support of his four fellow-members in the hard-line "steadfastness and confrontation front," whose foreign ministers have been summoned to an urgent meeting June 22 in the Libyan capital, Tripoli.
That even includes the main-line Palestinian guerrilla group, Al-Fatah, which has been having stormy rows with Colonel Qaddafi in recent months.
The Libyan Foreign Ministry now accuses Mr. Sadat of acting against "the Arab nation and Islam."
With the Libyan leader's religious sincerity largely unquestioned despite the unorthodoxy of some of his behavior, such appeals would put even moderate Arab heavyweights such as Saudi Arabia in a difficult position if they tried to favor Egypt in the dispute.
In strictly battlefield terms, the results of border fighting could be a close call, or even favor Libya.
The revolutionary regime there now disposes of arms in many ways superior to those available to the Egyptian military. But the Egyptians have a vast superiority in manpower, with nearly 400,000 men under arms compared with Libya's 40,000.
The Libyans have made up for some of their shortfall in skilled manpower by employing large numbers of Syrians and Palestinians to operate some of their modern weaponry. There also are an estimated 2,000 Soviet military advisers in sparsely populated Libya (population less than 2.5 million).
Sources close to the Libyans say they fear that Egypt might seek to occupy an oil-bearing border area in Libya named variously as "Ghaboub" or "Jebel Bin Ali, " and to set up some kind of secessionist Libyan state there.
To defend themselves against the perceived Egyptian threat, the Libyans in recent months have started work on a huge anti-tank defense line that eventually will stretch more than 200 miles from the Mediterranean coast into the desert.