PRO-WESTERN regimes in the Middle East are showing increasing signs of unease over the standoff between Libya and Western nations demanding the surrender of two Libyan agents.
Egypt, the United States' strongest Arab ally, is considered crucial to mediation efforts now under way to end the impasse. But sources interviewed by the Monitor say Egypt has strong reservations about the results of the campaign to try the alleged bombers of a Pan Am airliner that disintegrated over Lockerbie, Scotland in December 1988. The bombing killed 270 people.
Egypt is participating in the worldwide effort to press Libya to hand over the men.
Leading political commentators and senior government officials say that the US has misread the region's tolerance of American influence.
"The West has [overestimated] the pressure pro-Western regimes in the region can bear at this juncture," says Mohamed Sayed Ahmed, columnist for the Cairo daily Al-Ahram.
"There is an over-optimism, a feeling of power, that they can do things they would have been more prudent about before the Gulf war. This could be catastrophic in its consequences," he said.
The US, Britain, and France are seeking United Nations Security Council approval of a resolution to impose diplomatic sanctions and a UN arms and air embargo of Libya for its alleged role in the airliner bombing - unless Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi releases for trial two Libyans indicted last November for the downing of the airliner.
Arab League envoys arrived in Libya Tuesday to meet Colonel Qaddafi to coordinate the surrender of the two Libyan suspects. But the delegation, led by Arab League Secretary General Esmet Abdel-Meguid, returned Wednesday reporting that Qaddafi had said the earlier reported agreement to hand over the two suspects had been only a mistake.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak met with Libyan Prime Minister Abu-Zeid Omar Durdah Monday in the Libyan minister's second visit to Cairo in less than a week. The talks were part of stepped-up Egyptian efforts aimed at convincing Tripoli to cooperate with investigations into the downing of the plane.
But while Egypt is officially supporting the investigation, there are fears about the possible consequences of the Western-led campaign against Libya.
"If [the Libyans] say 'yes, they did it, these people were not working as free agents then it will go up the ladder, and who sits on top of the ladder? " the senior Egyptian Foreign Ministry official asked. "The Americans will direct all their energy against this man."
For several years Egypt has worked to moderate the worst excesses of Libya's radical leader. In Cairo's view, Qaddafi is manageable. If he were forced from power, his successor, according to many analysts, would most likely head up a regime unsympathetic to Egypt or else one backed by Muslim fundamentalists.
"The issue here is that fundamentalism is on the rise," the official says. "Our states are trying to cope with the economic pressure, the explosion of our population numbers, the extremist groups that are working in Sudan, Algeria, and Iran with all its activities in the region. Then the US comes in - attacks Iraq, attacks Libya. The region is boiling, and the [Western] boot is on the sandal."
Columnist Mohamed Sayed Ahmed echoes those sentiments: "The situation here is much more precarious than one would tend to think. The social fabric is somehow falling to pieces," he says, referring to recent press reports of the rape of a young woman at a busy Cairo bus station. The media has also blamed a rash of murders among family members on worsening poverty.
"There is an awareness that the power structure is somehow failing," he says.
The Arab League held an emergency session Sunday at its Cairo headquarters where Libya, which requested the meeting, pressed the 21-member League to reject UN sanctions.
Instead, the Arab League passed a resolution urging the UN to merely delay imposing sanctions until the outcome of an International Court of Justice appeal. Delegates said pro-Western states - particularly Egypt - opposed Libya's request to reject sanctions.
The Court convenes today for its first session, but is unlikely to make an immediate verdict.
Libya had been requesting the holding of an emergency Arab League meeting for weeks. Belatedly, Egypt gave the go-ahead but, according to Arab delegates, later blocked Libyan efforts to push through a condemnation of the US-led campaign to extradite the two men.
"The Arab states as a whole adopted a stand very different from the stand adopted during the Gulf crisis," says Mohamed Sayed Ahmed.
"There is a very big difference between dividing the Arabs over the Gulf war and dividing them over a plane downing that does not directly affect the Arabs, where nobody really knows what the proof [against Libya] is.
"They are creating tension on an issue that could escalate until it affects the whole region. With [Islamic fundamentalism in] Algeria, Sudan; with the peace talks stalled - they had better slow down."