MIDDLE Eastern governments began complying with United Nations sanctions against Libya yesterday in an atmosphere of some bafflement and anger at the West's targeting of a fellow Arab country.
While few official Arab statements were issued immediately after the imposition of sanctions, grass-roots support for Libya was evident throughout the region:
* In Jordan, pro-Libya committees were distributing leaflets calling for solidarity.
* In Tripoli, representatives of the Arab Transport Workers' Federation, which groups unions in 13 countries, vowed to refuse servicing United States, British, and French planes at Arab airports starting April 20.
* Arab newspaper columnists railed against US domination and drew parallels with Iraq's situation.
"Sanctions in the spring, war in the autumn? It's not a prediction, but it is an option," Morocco's leftist daily, Liberation, wrote.
Amman's Al-Rai newspaper warned that anti-Western feelings were growing in the Arab world and would "explode one day.... Otherwise, the Arab nation will cease to exist."
But any doubts about enforcement of the embargo were quickly dispelled by the region's closest US ally, Egypt. A Libyan Arab Airlines airliner carrying 227 passengers was denied the right to enter Egyptian airspace yesterday morning following the imposition of a UN air embargo on Libya.
The request for landing rights was an apparent challenge designed to test Egypt's stated commitment to abide by the UN resolutions, which ban all aircraft from entering or leaving Libya. Egyptian officials have issued public statements endeavoring to satisfy UN demands and maintain a semblance of good relations with neighboring Libya.
Other Arab states are expected to attempt a similar balancing act - officially observing the sanctions while attempting to lessen their effects on both Libya and their home populations.
Egypt has agreed to assist Libya in maintaining links with the outside world via their shared border. EgyptAir, the national carrier, and Libyan Arab Airlines have agreed to coordinate flights with a bus shuttle service.
"If thousands of foreign nationals have to move through Egypt, then we have to accommodate them, to allow them to transit through Egypt," a senior Egyptian source told the Monitor. He suggested that the efforts to help Libya maintain transit routes was based on humanitarian concerns - helping foreigners to leave Libya - rather than as a means to circumvent the UN sanctions.
The Egyptian government's cooperation with Libya over cross-border travel reflects its concerns about its longer term relations with Libya and extensive popular support inside Egypt and other Arab states for Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi.
Efforts to head off the crisis by the Cairo-based Arab League gained little ground. League delegates said there was a sense of futility among members - so much so that their discussions were not even focused on the question of Libyan intransigence. Instead, delegates said, they brainstormed on damage control - devising ways of delaying the imposition of sanctions or lessening the impact of the sanctions on states bordering Libya.
Officials of several Egyptian opposition parties traveled to Tripoli in the days leading up to the sanctions deadline to show solidarity with Colonel Qaddafi. One opposition newspaper, Al Ahali, in its edition of yesterday, called on leaders of the US, Britain, and France to postpone the sanctions and expressed its "shock" that the same nations had failed to "confront the terrorism" of Israel's occupation of Arab lands and its failure to comply with UN resolutions.
According to an Al Ahali columnist: "If the Arabs agree to sanctions against Libya, this will be the passport to similar sanctions against Syria."
From Beirut, Al-Sharq newspaper used words similar to those of Qaddafi in his defiant rejection of the UN demands last week, calling the campaign a "new Crusade against the Arabs." It continued, "But this time the Arab fortresses will prove impenetrable."
Last-minute efforts to postpone sanctions against Libya were rejected by the UN Security Council Tuesday. Libya had offered to send the alleged bombers of Pan Am Flight 103 to Malta for trial.
Earlier on Tuesday, the World Court in The Hague, ruled against Libya, ending one of Qaddafi's last defenses against the sanctions.
At the Security Council, Morocco - the only Arab member - urged postponement of the sanctions to allow time for further diplomacy. When Libya failed to hand over the two accused, the sanctions went into force at 4:00 a.m. GMT yesterday.
The two men were indicted by the US and Britain last November and called upon to surrender for trial in either of those two countries.
Tunisia made a last-minute appeal on Tuesday for a settlement of the conflict between Libya and the West which it said threatened to pull the region into a spiral of violence and instability.
"Only a settlement can avoid deterioration that could further complicate the situation ... and safeguard the direct interests of neighboring countries," the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally's Politburo said at an emergency meeting.
Yesterday a Tunisian government spokesman confirmed that his country would enforce UN sanctions and ban air links with its eastern neighbor.