Egypt is increasingly convinced that force is the best means of checking the dreams of Col. Muammar Qaddafi. The consensus in Cairo and Washington now is that Libya's mercurial ruler has proven more of a problem than once thought.
Officials in both countries agree that dare he take another move similar to last year's invasion of Chad, he will be made to regret it.
The belief here is that the spark that could ignite such a confrontation is "likely" to come from Sudan.
Egyptian strategists assert that Colonel Qaddafi's troops have now installed themselves in Chad, and are now in a position to seek a new adventure. Reported movements close to the vaguely drawn Sudanese frontier make the situation liable to explosion at any time.
The tension between Sudan, Egypt's neighbor to the south, and Libya, sharing Egypt's western border, has reached unprecedented levels in the last few weeks.
Not only has Sudan's President Jaafar Nimeiry ordered the explusion of Libya's diplomatic mission from Khartoum on charges of subversion, but every recent symptom of instability has been blamed on Libyan-sponsored agents.
The latest symptom blamed on Libya: a railway strike that paralyzed communications in the country and cut the main link between the seat of government in the north and the autonomous, Christian-dominated south.
Mr. Nimeiry recently wound up a week- long visit here during which plans for military coordination with Egypt were updated. Bound to Sudan by a 1976 defense pact, Egypt has pledged limitless military support for Nimeiry's regime.
However, the Sudanese President's indecision on the issue of whether to follow Egypt's example in allowing US Rapid Deployment Forces to intervene in emergencies threatening the region's security, has been a source of discomfort for Egypt's leadership. The US cannot come to Mr. Nimeiry's aid without being invited.
But, for all its indignation, Egypt seems reluctant to teach Libya's colonel a lesson, as it did in 1977, when border skirmishes escalated into open fighting.
The border strip, declared an emergency area by Egypt last year, continues to be regarded as a potential trouble region. Despite the tight security measures, the number of infiltrations from Libya into Egypt has exceeded 300 over a period of six months, according to Egyptian military intelligence sources.
The recent fortifications and continuation of troop concentration there are "strictly defensive," emphasized Defense Minister Gen. Muhammad Abdel Halim Abu Ghazzala.
But Colonel Qaddafi seems to have gotten the message that Egypt has been weighing its options. The Libyan official news agency (Jana) recently claimed there was a joint Egyptian-Israeli plan to attack Libya.
The very idea was publicly brushed off by Foreign Minister Kamal Hassan Ali as being "ridiculous."
But, the minister said in an interview with the Monitor, the Libyan propaganda move could well be motivated by a "genuine fear" of Egypt's intentions.It can also serve the purpose of "darkening Egypt's image in the eyes of the Arabs," Mr. Ali said.
Sadat's concern about Colonel Qaddafi was transmitted more than once to the Carter administration, but that administration was said to have refused to give "the green light" for Egypt to take action against Qaddafi.
The new administration in Washington appears to be much more inclined to move against Qaddafi. But hints from State Department officials indicate that "regional actors," such as Egypt, would have to play the lead role in carrying out any "dirty work" against the Libyan leader.
Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., meanwhile, appeared to be taking the lead in designing a program to encourage gradually escalating pressures against Qaddafi.