Several Constraining Factors, Too : Mubarak Under Pressure to Retaliate Against Libya
Despite a number of sobering constraints, pressure is building on the government of President Hosni Mubarak to take military action against Libya following last week’s bloody hijacking of an EgyptAir jetliner to Malta, diplomatic and Egyptian analysts say.
These analysts believe that it is only a question of time before Egypt takes some kind of action against Libya’s leader, Col. Moammar Kadafi, for a growing list of terrorist plots that Egyptian officials have charged were either planned or carried out directly by Libya.
However, the form any retaliation would take and its exact timing remain matters of intense and differing speculation, reflecting the fact that any major operation against Libya carries risks that for Egypt could outweigh the rewards.
There is also some doubt about whether Mubarak’s domestic position is strong enough to embark on a course of action with unpredictable consequences. The president is widely regarded as lacking popularity, and many analysts believe that his standing has been weakened further by the outcome of the hijacking, in which 60 hostages died, all but two of them after Egyptian commandos stormed the plane.
The carnage deeply shocked Egyptians and, coming on top of the humiliating affair of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro, has led to talk about Mubarak’s ability to handle a crisis, Western diplomats said.
Egypt has accused Libya of instigating the airplane hijacking and vowed that terrorism which claimed Egyptian lives “will not go unpunished,” in Mubarak’s words. Its armed forces have been on a heightened state of alert along the western frontier with Libya since last Sunday, the day of the commando raid.
Border alerts have been declared before, most recently last December when Egyptian intelligence reports asserted that Kadafi was plotting to hijack an Egyptian airliner to avenge the foiling of an earlier terrorist plot. But while it is difficult to judge, because military mobilizations are shrouded in secrecy, there are signs that the level of the current alert may be higher than before.
Troops Move Up
Major highways through the western desert were closed to civilian traffic to allow unhindered movement of troops and tanks. There were reports that troops have been moved westward from as far east as the Suez Canal. There have been signs of unusual air activity over the capital--sonic booms and sightings of jet fighters--and some Egyptians say that friends or relatives in the military were ordered to report to their units.
By Friday, there were signs that the alert may be relaxing, yet a number of analysts say that the possibility of armed conflict remains real.
“The chances (for military action) seem to be better now than they have for some time,” said one Western diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
“We have no figures, but the information we have indicates a high degree of preparedness and planning,” the diplomat added. “They are examining the size of the forces they will need and putting them in place.”
On the popular level, most Egyptians seem prepared to accept at least a short and limited war with Libya. While the evidence cited so far seems thin and circumstantial, Egyptians generally appear to accept their government’s claim that Libya was behind the hijacking, if only because it is another example of the kind of mischief they have come to expect from Kadafi.
Angry at Kadafi
“The Egyptian media has been preparing people psychologically for this for a long time,” notes an Egyptian political scientist. “For years, we’ve been saying that Kadafi is guilty of this plot and that plot against Egypt. Now, after the hijacking, there is a lot of anger. From teachers to merchants to taxi drivers, everyone I talk to says Mubarak should do what Sadat did.”
The political scientist was referring to the border war that the late President Anwar Sadat waged against Libya in 1977. At that time, Egyptian forces drove 20 miles inside Libya and briefly occupied the Jaghbub oasis before withdrawing.
“Egypt has the will, the motive and the means to do something similar this time,” a Western political analyst said.
Nevertheless, the risks of a military adventure in Libya are grave and there are many constraining factors, not the least of which is Mubarak’s reputation as a cautious and consensus-seeking leader who dislikes risks and is not given to adventurism.
During what seemed to be the height of current military preparations last week, Mubarak himself interjected a cautionary note. “We do not call for war. We call for peace. War is not a simple thing. We cannot take that decision simply,” he said.
Another restraining factor is that, while domestic opinion may favor a move against Libya, Arab opinion at large may not be. Other moderate states in the region have, at various times, had their own problems with Kadafi, and many would like to see him eliminated, analysts here believe. But the prospect of war also alarms them and is anathema to such countries as Saudi Arabia, which sets great store by inter-Arab harmony and the avoidance of open conflict.
One of Mubarak’s main foreign policy objectives, since assuming the presidency four years ago, has been to ease the isolation that Sadat brought upon Egypt when he made peace with Israel in 1979. Realizing this objective has proven difficult, due in part to continued Syrian and Saudi opposition. But recently there have been signs that such opposition may be softening, a process Mubarak may not want to risk upsetting by embarking on a course that would embarrass some Arab states and anger others.
To justify a move against Libya in Arab eyes, Mubarak would need strong, if not incontestable, proof that Kadafi was behind the hijacking. But the evidence made public so far is unconvincing. Pressed for proof of his assertion that Kadafi’s “connection is clear,” Mubarak has noted only that the hijackers asked at one point to meet with the Libyan ambassador to Malta and that during the crisis the Libyan foreign minister refused to return Egypt’s phone calls.
While Egyptian officials have alluded to other proof too sensitive to be made public, “you can’t build a case for war against somebody on the grounds that he doesn’t answer his phone,” a Western analyst noted.
The biggest constraint on Mubarak, however, may be economic. While there is little question here that Egypt could win a war with Libya, given the overwhelming numerical superiority of its armed forces, there is some doubt that its precarious economy could sustain anything more than a short, limited conflict.
Earlier this year, the International Monetary Fund estimated Egypt’s foreign debt at more than $31 billion and projected a 1985 balance of payments deficit of $1.3 billion. Without urgent austerity measures, the IMF and other lending institutions are showing increasing reluctance to extend further credits to Egypt.
Worried About Unrest
The austerity measures the IMF has called for include drastic cutbacks in state subsidies, which in all their various forms are estimated to cost Egypt at least $4.5 billion annually. But with high unemployment and urban inflation estimated at 20% despite the subsidies, the government is clearly worried that major price reforms could lead to serious domestic unrest.
A large-scale and costly military confrontation with Libya is not something the Egyptian economy can afford, analysts say.
The balance of pros and cons has led a number of diplomatic and military analysts to speculate that, if Egypt does retaliate against Libya, it will opt for a quick but heavy air strike against some strategic target such as a military base. However, Kadafi has a reputation for being emotional, even illogical, and even a limited strike carries with it the risk of escalation. “Mubarak has to be very careful,” says an Egyptian newspaper editor. “Libyan missiles can hit Alexandria,” Egypt’s second-largest city.
In the end, some analysts believe, cold calculations about Mubarak’s domestic position may, as much as anything else, influence the decision about the timing and nature of any move against Libya.
‘Deliberate’ or ‘Plodding’?
While supporters call him “deliberate,” detractors call Mubarak “plodding,” and note that he lacks Sadat’s flare for the dramatic or Gamal Abdel Nasser’s charisma. During his four years in office, his main domestic preoccupation has been the ailing economy, a juiceless issue from which it has been hard to squeeze much popularity.
“His main problem,” an Egyptian political scientist said, “is that he is perceived as having achieved very little.”
In foreign affairs, Mubarak’s two main goals--to broaden the peace treaty with Israel into a overall Middle East settlement and to reassert Egypt’s leadership role in the Arab world--have so far not been realized. At home, as aspirations fall, ideologies like Islamic fundamentalism are on the rise.
Tough Stand Against U.S.
During last month’s humiliating Achille Lauro affair, Mubarak seems to have salvaged some prestige by taking a tough stand against the United States for intercepting an Egyptian airliner carrying the Italian cruise ship’s hijackers out of Egypt. But his attempt to rid Egypt of the hijackers in the first place was also widely criticized and is said to have led to strains with his pro-American defense minister, Field Marshal Abdel-Halim abu Ghazala, who reportedly was opposed to freeing the terrorists.
So far, the crisis with Libya has been useful in helping to divert public attention away from the Malta raid and its bloody outcome. But in the process, some analysts believe that Mubarak has created an appetite for revenge that will have to be sated if he is not to lose further face.
“We have been saying for four years now that the Libyans are guilty of all sorts of plots. The trouble is that if you saying that and don’t do anything about it, then you appear weak,” said an Egyptian political analyst.
“For Mubarak, the real embarrassment will come if he does not take action soon,” agreed an Egyptian intellectual. “If he does not punish Libya this time, the outcome will be really negative. People will lose even more respect for him and they will start making jokes.”