Drought and famine, spreading northward from the Sahara toward the Mediterranean, have combined with expanding populations and resurgent Muslim fervor to produce an explosive mix in Arab North Africa.
From Cairo and Khartoum west to the Atlantic coast of Morocco, North African leaders acknowledge that population growth, food shortages, and religious zeal add up to a far greater challenge than the revolutionary subversion of Libya's Muammar Qaddafi. The latest sign of instability is this week's bloodless coup in Mauritania, a country particularly hard-hit by drought and encroaching desert.
''You see,'' Sudan's President Jaafar Nimeiry recently told a Western visitor , ''we have chosen an Islamic society. But even Islam isn't enough. To survive, we need rain, water, and good land to grow food, much more food!''
President Nimeiry explained that Sudan's national energies are now directed toward winning new farmland instead of projected resumption of oil drilling in southern Sudan, suspended after last year's attacks by secessionists opposing northern Sudan's Muslim law. (Ironically, many of the secessionists are Christians or other non-Muslims supported by Colonel Qaddafi, a self-styled champion of Islam.)
Nimeiry seeks to gain new agricultural areas by draining southern Sudan's vast Sudd marshes. Some experts are urging this project on him. Others feel it contains the seeds of ecological disaster by upsetting natural balances between southern Sudan's plants, animals, and humans. But the President is determined to go ahead when capital becomes available.
In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak, like the late Anwar Sadat before him, has steered away from conflict with Israel to face the huge task of feeding an exploding population. Muslim fundamentalists - long a key feature of Sudan's political life - have begun to pose a real threat to Mr. Mubarak's middle-of-the-road style of government.
Since Nov. 22, Cairo's 1,000-year-old Islamic university of Al-Azhar, the oldest and most prestigious institution of its kind in the Arab world, has been disturbed by student demonstrations. Mr. Mubarak reluctantly closed the university. Student demonstrators had moved from protesting the death of a demonstrator during demands for better student food and allowances to making major political and social demands, including full implementation of Islamic law and enforced conservative dress for women students.
Egypt's oldest and most prestigious fundamentalist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, now is challenging the legality of a government ban imposed on them 30 years ago by Egypt's first revolutionary president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, after the brotherhood tried to kill him.
Such fundamentalist Islamic groups as Jihad (Holy War), which claimed responsibility for Mr. Sadat's murder in October 1981, the Soldiers of Allah, and Renunciation and Flight operate on Egypt's university campuses and in professional life. They question the secular habits and values of a society where a large Christian minority coexisted mostly peacefully with the Muslim majority - until Lebanon's sectarian strife in 1975 and Iran's Shia Muslim revolution in 1979 both helped trigger surges of fundamentalism elsewhere.
In Libya, Colonel Qaddafi is supposed by some outside critics to have enforced harsh Islamic laws. However, recent visits to Libya indicate that Qaddafi's supporters, many of them poorly educated younger people in his ''people's committees,'' or in the revolutionary committees that supervise the committees and terrorize Qaddafi's Libyan opponents abroad, are little concerned with religion.
Some Islamic scholars and leaders of mosque prayers have run afoul of the committees for being too conservative in interpreting doctrine, or in urging mercy for Qaddafi's enemies who have been hanged at home (especially after the unsuccessful attack on his headquarters outside Tripoli last May 8), or gunned down in distant cities like London, Paris, Rome, or Athens.
After the recent failed plot in Cairo to kill former Libyan Prime Minister Abdel Hamid Bakkush - exposed by Egyptian security men who faked the murder by two Britons and two Maltese allegedly on the Libyan payroll - Qaddafi's supporters have tried to explain it away.
The London Sunday Times reported from Valletta, Malta, that Libyan agents there tried to convince a reporter that failure of the plot was deliberately planned without Qaddafi's knowledge by a revolutionary committee to prove to Qaddafi that Bakkush and Mubarak are irredeemable ''traitors.''
Mr. Mubarak has become incensed by a series of events that he publicly blamed on Libya: mining of the Red Sea last summer; planned attacks to damage the Aswan High Dam and so disrupt Egypt's vital and precarious agriculture and to block the Suez Canal to shipping; and the offer of a $4 billion Libyan bribe to Mr. Mubarak if he would renounce the Camp David peace accords with Israel, end his dependence on US aid, and join the radical Arab camp.
After military precautions suggested that Mr. Mubarak was preparing for war with Qaddafi, Egyptian media stopped gloating over the Bakkush affair to concentrate on the nation's staggering economic and food problems, as well as Mideast politics.
In Tunisia, supporters of North Africa's longest-governing chief of state, President Habib Bourguiba, are wondering whether Tunisia faces another winter of mass protest. Last January, many people were killed and wounded in outbreaks touched off by a sudden rise in staple food prices. Many Muslim fundamentalists were jailed. Colonel Qaddafi's supporters also, as usual, drew a measure of blame despite Libyan disavowals.
Tunisia's Parliament recently went to the unusual length of passing a law which could deprive Muhammad Masmoudi, a Tunisian-born former foreign minister, of his Tunisian citizenship. Mr. Masmoudi has long supported Qaddafi's attempts at union with Tunisia and other Arab countries. Qaddafi has appointed him as Libya's ambassador to the United Nations in New York.
The small North African republic now faces possible new unrest fanned by unemployment, growing numbers of young school dropouts, drought in the south, and uneven rainfall in Tunisia's northern farming districts.
Prime Minister Muhammad M'zali, President Bourguiba's constitutional successor, has been trying to placate the illegal Islamic Tendency Movement. The movement challenges the entire secular basis of the society Mr. Bourguiba built after Tunisia gained independence from France in 1956. However, Mr. M'zali apparently feels the need of allies against militant labor unions.
Last Nov. 1, neighboring Algeria celebrated the 30th anniversary of the start of its successful eight-year war for independence from France. Hundreds of invited guests were able to talk with its leaders, including President Chadli Bendjedid, reelected with support of the Algerian Army and the ruling National Liberation Front to a second presidential term last January.
The relentless advance of the Sahara and food shortages have begun to affect some parts of southern Algeria, though with nothing like the impact they have on such neighbors as Mali, Chad, or Mauritania. But Algeria's leaders appear more relaxed than Egyptian, Sudanese, or Tunisian ones about Muslim fundamentalism as a possible threat. Student disturbances were dealt with fairly severely in 1980- 83 and have since subsided.
In private, Algerians are bitter over Qaddafi's claims to southern Algerian oil fields and alleged subsidization of former President Ahmed Ben Bella, now an adversary of the Algiers government, who heads a London-based Islamic Revolutionary Council. But they are far more concerned about the Moroccan-Libyan pact signed by Qaddafi and Morocco's King Hassan II last August.
Several factors may have forced King Hassan to seek the connection with Qaddafi. Last year, Morocco had major trouble over unemployment, hunger, and sudden raising of food prices. There were also vast expenditures for Morocco's 10-year-old war against the Polisario Front (now formally admitted to the Organization of African Unity as the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic, precipitating Morocco's exit from the OAU last month), an unprecedented drought in Morocco's grain-growing areas, and spreading poverty were major factors.
From Qaddafi, Hassan has now obtained a halt to Libyan aid to the Polisario, the offer of cheap oil and many jobs for Moroccans in Libya. In return, Hassan made what Qaddafi's Libyan foes call the shameful gesture of handing over to Qaddafi several Libyan dissidents who had lived in Morocco.
Though not friendly toward Qaddafi, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia gave the union his discreet blessing. Qaddafi in return gave King Fahd, a close ally of Hassan, an extraordinary public apology during Libya's recent 15th revolutionary anniversary celebrations.
He spoke of the ''misguided'' zealotry of Libyan pilgrims during the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, who planned to seize Saudi mosques and holy places. Many were disarmed and shipped back to Libya by the Saudi authorities.
Qaddafi's rapprochement with Morocco added to French President Francois Mitterrand's recent embarrassment over Qaddafi's apparently broken word in failing to pull Libyan troops out of Chad after French troops left. The pullout was scheduled under a September Franco-Libyan agreement in which Hassan seems to have played a mediating role.
Drought and economic adversity, many North Africans believe, will help to speed the day when Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and perhaps a post-Qaddafi Libya are able to unite in a single entity called the Greater Maghreb. Algeria and Tunisia signed one of a number of inter-North African unity pacts in March 1983. Mauritania joined them in December 1983.
King Hassan then laid the groundwork for his pact with Qaddafi by promising not to send troops to support the anti-Qaddafi French-backed regime of Hissein Habre in Chad, if Qaddafi would confirm his withdrawal of support for the Polisario Front in Western Sahara. Qaddafi was pleased to respond positively. Apparently unperceived by the US Embassy in Rabat, the ''union'' of August 1984 was quietly prepared.
Veteran North Africa observers seriously question the official US and French optimism that Qaddafi's new Moroccan connection will influence him toward more cautious policies. The US Congress recently voted $50 million to refurbish Morocco's Sidi Slimane air base to beef up the long-range strength of the US Rapid Deployment Force. But Morocco is now a country committed, at least on paper, to fight on Qaddafi's side if he is attacked or otherwise comes into conflict with any outsider, including the US.
At the other end of North Africa, Egypt has been assured since the early '70s of protection against Soviet military aid to Libya in any conflict. This is an important reason why North African power games could involve the superpowers.
John Cooley, a correspondent for ABC News in London, is a writer on North African affairs and former Mideast correspondent of the Monitor.