A perceived Libyan threat to Sudan is creating a flurry of warlike rhetoric in Cairo and Khartoum. But new reports say a Libyan attack has been postponed. And Wester--and even Egyptian--expers admit that Libya, Egypt, and Sudan are not equipped for decisive military actions across the forbidding North LAfrican wastelands.
One diplomat says he doubts "there could be preemptive strike on Libya" launched from either Sudan or Egypt, "but the situation bears close watching. One has to assume that given the nature of the Libyan reigime, Col. [Muammar] Qaddafi will attempt to take advantage of this situation."
All of the countries involved have felt it necessary to engage in the kind of talk that could commit them to military action, if needed. The two American AWACS surveillance planes sent last week to Cairo as a show of support for President Hosni Mubarak's new government, may use their electronic eyes to help deter provocations along the Egypt-Libya and Chad-Sudan borders. They also will be in position to confirm any Libyan activity that could provoke war.
Any attack on the Sudan, a high-level Egyptian official told the Monitor, would precipitate a direct Egyptian counterattack against Libya. This is a new Egyptian policy. Until now, Foreign Ministry officials had said Egypt would retaliate inn conjunction with the Sudan along the border in the event of attack. But Egyptians apparently are concerned about getting tied down in a war of attrition in the rugged Sudanese outback.
"We will not get involved in a situation like Iraq [which is struggling through a 13-month-old war with Iran]," the Egyptian startegist says. "Once we establish that Libya is directly involved we will respond very quickly and directly against Tripoli and Benghazi. We will hit instantly, giving them no time to retaliate."
But this official argues that the ability to strike requires advanced American weapons--especially F-16 fighter-bombers and M-60 battle tanks. Even with expedited deliveries of some of the 40 F-16s and 311 M-60 tanks (half of which have already arrived in Egypt), the official says it may be six months before Egypt would be strong enough to carry out its retaliatory pledge.
Egypt intends to dispatch older Egyptian equipment to the Sudan as soon as the American weapons arrive. Already tanks, armored personnel carriers, and field weapons have been sent south. Egyptian military advisers have been stationed in the Sudan since 1971, and under a 1976 mutual defense treaty, two Egyptian battalions (about 1,000 men) are reportedly in the Al Gizira region near Khartoum.
Since the Oct. 6 assassination of Anwar Sadat, Libya has toned down its rhetoric. Libyan envoys have been dispatched to Egypt with assurances that Qaddafi does not plan to attack or otherwise interfere in Egypt. But Egyptian officials say they believe Libya was connected with the two bombs at Cairo Airport last week. In recent days Egyptian officials have received parcel bombs in the mail--also believed to be the work of Libya. So far, there have been no injuries.
Still, Egyptian officials say there is no evidence of Libyan involvement in the Sadat assassination. President Mubarak has not begun the kind of anti-Qaddafi diatribes that Sadat engaged in.
But the danger in the region today is that provocation or a wrongly interpreted act could ignite a conflict.