WORLD

Menaces to a fragile peace

October 26 1981
WORLD

Menaces to a fragile peace

October 26 1981

Menaces to a fragile peace

WORLD

In normal times Geneina, just inside SuLdan's border with Chad, is a verdant oasis. But normality vanished with Libyan strongman Moammar Khadafy’s late 1980 intervention in Chad’s civil war. Since then, Chadian guerrillas backed by Egypt and Sudan have been harrying the Libyans, and Geneina has become the home for several thousand of the 22,000 refugees who have fled from the fighting. So far, Red Cross and United Nations’ teams have managed to cope. But, says local UN representative Akber Menemencioglu, people are arriving at the sprawling whitetented camp at the rate of 200 a day and “it could get a great deal worse.”

Elsewhere, it already has. In recent weeks Khadafy’s jets have been carrying out reprisal raids on targets in Sudan. At week’s end the Libyan air force attacked the town of Kolbus, to the north of Geneina, where ousted Chadian premier Hissène Habré’s ragged legions are headquartered. Sudan charged that property has been damaged and lives lost. Meanwhile, a propaganda offensive has been launched over the desert airwaves to encourage the Sudanese to do what has already been attempted several times (the last occasion was in 1976): topple Sudan’s president, Gaafar Nimeiry, a close ally of murdered Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. In Geneina the vast, smiling Sudanese commander, Brigadier Abbas, said the Libyans were incompetent and his men “hungry for a fight.” But in Cairo earlier in the week a worried Nimeiry was calling on the United States and Egypt to come to his assistance and demanding the “physical liquidation” of his tormentor Khadafy at any price.

The Sudan was not the only place where nerve ends laid bare by Anwar Sadat’s murder were twitching anxiously. In Egypt, the massacre of 44 policemen by radical Takfir wal Hijra (repentance and holy flight) sect members in Asyut was followed last week by a gun battle at a villa near the pyramids. There police captured two of the Asyut ringleaders and a large cache of arms. The same day, two bombs exploded while freight was being unloaded at Cairo airport from an Air Malta Boeing 737, which had begun its flight in Tripoli.

Libya’s disclaimer of responsibility for the explosion made little impression in Cairo. Egyptian intelligence claimed to detect an unmistakable gesture by Khadafy’s long terrorist arm. As a resuit, there was a collective sigh of relief in the Egyptian capital when Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, marked his inauguration as president with a pledge to fight the “fire” of religious extremism “with fire.” Mubarak also declared a state of emergency on the Libyan border,, arrested roughly 1,500 domestic dissidents and sent Egyptian antiaircraft units to the Sudan.

The question that haunted the world, howlever, was whether those amoves, coupled with Nimeiry’s cruder threats and Libya’s presumed willingness to foment trouble, amounted merely to warlike gestures or to preparations for war itself. Would the sporadic border skirmishing between the Sudan and Libya suddenly degenerate into open hostilities? Or was there a prospect of a much bloodier and extensive replay of the brief 1977 encounter between the Egyptian and Libyan armies?

At week’s end the situation seemed less threatening. For his part, Mubarak seemed anxious not to get involved in a slanging match with Libya. In fact, the new Egyptian leader impressed the dignitaries and diplomats who met him as a conscientious politician who is determined to end some of the excesses of the Sadat era—corruption and conspicuous consumer consumption—in order to rebuild bridges in a nation that has become disenchanted with its leadership over the past two years.

Washington, too, while taking no chances on Libyan intentions, was clearly not about to be panicked into overreacting. The quarrel between the Sudan and Egypt, on the one hand, and Libya, on the other, is longstanding and, despite its implications for Middle East peace, has its roots in local rivalry. As a result, Washington promised to speed and augment—with further tanks and antiaircraft guns—the $100 million in military aid already pledged to the Sudan this year. It also dispatched two AWACS aircraft to Egypt to keep tabs on the troubled border areas. At the same time, however, President Ronald Reagan and Secretary of State Alexander Haig firmly disabused Nimeiry of his apparent belief that the United States was committed to intervene on his behalf in the event of a Libyan attack.

At the same time, Washington warned Khadafy that the United States will react if he actually invades the Sudan. But Reagan went out of his way to squelch a suggestion that the United States should stop importing Libyan oil. Such an action, said Reagan, would only force Khadafy to get his money from someone else.

With the spotlight on such manoeuvring, further indications that Sadat’s departure from the scene might lead to new peace initiatives in the Middle East got little publicity. The exception was a statement by former president Jimmy Carter (quickly denied in Jerusalem) that the Israelis were preparing to make a concession on Palestinian autonomy in order to strengthen Mubarak’s hand at home. Nevertheless, there was growing speculation in Beirut that a major diplomatic offensive —based on Saudi Crown Prince Fahd’s eight-point plan for a settlement—is imminent.

Ironically, seven of Fahd’s points offer nothing new. They are merely a composite of United Nations resolutions calling for Israeli withdrawal from territory occupied in the 1967 war; establishment under UN supervision of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with Jerusalem as its capital; and compensation or repatriation of Palestinian refugees. It is the eighth point on which the plan’s supporters base their hopes: an Arab guarantee that all states in the region shall be allowed to “live in peace.”

While declining to accept the planto do so would have been to recognize Israel in advance of the negotiations to come—PLO leader Yasser Arafat last week gave it warm support. It was, he said, a “very important platform” for a Middle East solution.

British Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington is likely to go a lot farther than that on behalf of the European Community (EC) when he makes his upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia. Diplomatic sources say the object of Carrington’s trip is to clear out of the way minor differences so that the plan can be put to Arab heads of state who meet in Morocco at the end of November with joint EC-Saudi backing. There, say diplomats, it is likely to receive only token objections from such hard-line states as Libya, Syria and Algeria. The careful Saudis have already taken the precaution of consulting possible opponents—and have received the green light.

If this scenario turns out to be correct, the plan’s next forum is likely to be the United Nations, where its supporters hope for endorsement from the 44 Commonwealth members, Canada among them. A paragraph buried in the massive document agreed upon in Melbourne earlier this month recognizes a “just and lasting settlement” on the basis of the relevant UN resolutions, the Palestinians’ “inalienable” right to a homeland and the “right of all states in the region to live in peace within secure borders.”

Optimism in Beirut, however, was restrained. Among other things, the influence of the United States is seen as crucial in persuading Israel to accept the plan. And Washington still appears committed to the Camp David process. But by one of those fateful twists that seem to bestrew the path to peace in the Middle East, it was Reagan’s special envoy, Philip Habib, who gave the Saudis the idea that their initiative would be welcomed.

The misunderstanding arose during the shuttle that sealed the ceasefire between Israel and Lebanon last summer. Explained a Western diplomat: “Habib went to the Saudis and said the United States was willing to listen to any proposal that would help stabilize Lebanon and the Middle East as a whole. That gave them a misleading impression of potential U.S. flexibility—and the dimensions of the role the U.S. wanted them to play.”

At week’s end, however, with Libya’s shadowy presence near the Sudan border growing—intelligence reports say a whole series of airfields is under construction—the fear was that just such a misunderstanding over the peace could easily lead to war.

David North, with files from Nick Worrall in El Geneina. Emma Soames in Cairo, Robin Wright in Beirut and Michael Posner in Washington.