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Egypt's Fear: Is Kadafi Worse Friend Than Foe?

June 30, 1989|MICHAEL ROSS | Times Staff Writer

CAIRO — One of the most extraordinary, if cautious, reconciliations in the Arab world is expected to be consummated shortly when Egypt and Libya, two of the region's most implacable foes, re-establish diplomatic relations after more than a decade.

After years of enmity characterized by repeated attempts to destabilize each other, a rapprochement of sorts was sealed at last month's Arab League summit meeting in Morocco. There, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Col. Moammar Kadafi, the Libyan leader, met for more than four hours of talks at the behest of Algerian President Chadli Bendjedid, the driving force behind Libya's rehabilitation in the Arab world.

Since then, the pace of normalization has accelerated, with Kadafi issuing a number of effusive statements praising Egypt's pivotal role in the region and, more to the point, offering to take back the thousands of Egyptian workers he summarily expelled in 1985.

The latter is particularly welcome news to financially troubled Egypt, which needs all the economic assistance it can get.

But the pace at which Kadafi seems to be pushing normalization--he has hinted that he would like to pay a state visit to Cairo--clearly has senior Egyptian officials worried.

"We hope Egypt's influence can help moderate Kadafi's behavior," one official said. "But given that he is so unpredictable, we wonder whether having him as a friend won't be more trouble than having him as an enemy."

In a region where political alliances and enmities are frequently shifting, the Egyptian-Libyan conflict has been one of the most durable and constant, eclipsed in terms of endurance only by that involving rival wings of the Baathist party that rules in Syria and Iraq.

Libya was held responsible for the mining of the Suez Canal in 1984 and was suspected of being behind the hijacking of an Egyptair jetliner to Malta the following year. It has also been linked, on at least two occasions, to attempts to blow up the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.

In light of such a turbulent history of misdeeds, Egyptian officials are extremely wary of Kadafi's latest overtures toward Egypt.

"If he is really changing, we should welcome it, but the change is too sudden to trust," said Mustafa Amin, a prominent political commentator. "What can you say about a man who wants to shoot you in the morning and then hug you in the afternoon, except . . . that he is crazy?"

As recently as last month, Kadafi was threatening to boycott the Morocco summit meeting because it was preparing to readmit Egypt into the Arab League. Seen taking copious notes as Mubarak addressed the heads of state, Kadafi seemed set to deliver a scathing attack on Egypt. But Morocco's King Hassan II abruptly turned off the microphones and adjourned the meeting as soon as Mubarak had finished speaking. By the time the meeting ended a few days later, Kadafi was calling on his fellow Arabs to support Egypt with all their political, military and financial might.

Trying to explain such sudden and seemingly impulsive shifts in Kadafi's behavior has, over the years, made amateur psychoanalysts of a number of diplomats.

"Kadafi is in one of his manic, as opposed to depressive, moods," one Western diplomat said with a shrug. "That's the only explanation that makes any sense."

Other analysts say that more pragmatic factors may be mitigating Kadafi's behavior at the moment. Chastened by the U.S. bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi three years ago, and the routing of Libyan forces from Chad the following year, Kadafi has been seeking, with Algerian encouragement, to ease Libya's isolation in the Arab world.

At home, mounting economic problems, the growth of Islamic fundamentalism, and a general rise in political discontent fueled in part by the unpopularity of the Chad debacle have combined to check at least partially Kadafi's penchant for adventurism abroad.

"Kadafi realizes that he must break out of his isolation," a Foreign Ministry official in Cairo said. "Improving relations with his North African neighbors was his first move in this direction. Patching things up with Egypt is the next logical step."

For Egypt, the incentive to patch up relations with Libya is mostly financial.

"Quite frankly," one senior official said, "we need their money."

With urban unemployment rates running well over 20%, not counting the underemployment endemic to Egyptian society, the prospect of new job opportunities in Libya is alluring, especially when such opportunities are drying up in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq and the other Arab outlets Egypt has traditionally used for its surplus labor.

Libyan officials have promised to compensate the more than 10,000 Egyptians it expelled four years ago and to give new jobs to them and to tens of thousands of additional workers who are now apparently welcome to go to Libya.

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