Libya Slams Their Borders Shut

Egypt's president Hosni Mubarak is smarting from a sharp snub.

Like fellow Egyptian Dr. Mohammed ElBaradei, director of the UN’s nuclear watchdog, Mubarak first heard of Muammar Qaddafi‘s decision to give up his nuclear option over the television news. No one bothered to give him a heads-up – not the Libyan ruler, whom Egypt’s government and intelligence services have supported for three decades; not British premier Tony Blair who brought this family to the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh for a holiday and not President George W. Bush.

So two days after Qaddafi dropped his nuclear bombshell, Mubarak got on the phone and called him. “Why on earth did you dare do this without telling me?” he asked. “You have embarrassed me and even more, every Arab leader – especially Crown Prince Abdullah in Saudi Arabia and Syrian president Bashar Assad. I am very, very angry.”

Qaddafi mumbled something indistinct and the two rulers agreed to talk again in a couple of days.

However, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources have learned that Mubarak's office was given the brush-off whenever a call was put through to the Libyan ruler. Qaddafi was always meeting foreign visitors and promised to get back to Mubarak as soon as he could – but never did. In all his 22 years as ruler of Egypt, Mubarak has never been so mortified.

However, there was another knock to come, which sent a top-level Egyptian delegation running to Tripoli on Wednesday, January 21, with a personal message from Mubarak to Qaddafi. It was carried by no less than prime minister Safwat al-Sherif, foreign minister Ahmed Maher and personal presidential adviser Osama el-Baz.

Their business was as important as the delegation’s rank was high. About a week after the foreshortened Mubarak-Qaddafi conversation, Libyan border posts began turning away Egyptian arrivals. It started out as minor harassment and longer passport checks which led to long lines forming at the border crossings. Egypt complained through regular diplomatic channels and asked for an explanation. Instead, the Libyans got tougher and began turning Egyptians away. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources, the Libyan-Egyptian frontier is now virtually sealed, aside from a few exceptions. Moreover, Tripoli suddenly stopped money transfers from Libyan to Egyptian banks, creating a whole set of new headaches for Mubarak and his government.

About a million Egyptians have jobs in Libya. Now, they have no way of sending money home each month or paying visits their families every couple of weeks lest their return to work is blocked. Without the remittances, their families could starve.

Still worse, several million disgruntled Egyptians sense the Mubarak government’s powerlessness to cope with national problems and have noticed that Qaddafi is thumbing his nose at their president. Our sources in North Africa quote senior Libyan officials as reporting Qaddafi’s explanation of his conduct to his inner circle. Mubarak, he says, will have to get used to the new balance of power in Africa and understand that the Arabs no longer have the clout they had for more than a century.

“The Egyptians may be upset by my dealings with America, but I know exactly how they talked about me and that made me pretty angry too,” Qaddafi said this week to his close circle.

“I’m not the least interested in what's going on in the Arab countries and their governments – and that goes for the Arab League as well,” he added. “I’m finished with the Arabs – I am now turning to Africa.”

DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources interpret Qaddafi's comments and his border closure as aimed at cutting Mubarak down to size and administering a lesson to teach him to change his tone with Libya.

According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Cairo, Qaddafi’s attitude is not the only thing bothering Mubarak. Aged 75 and in poor health, the Egyptian ruler sees his last term as president occasioning the collapse of his country as a regional power.

Since the 1950s, Egypt’s prestige has rested on four pillars:

  1. Influence in West Africa through Qaddafi.

  2. Control over the Sudanese regime in Khartoum which provided Egypt with a clear run to the western coast of Red Sea, the main shipping artery to and from the Suez Canal and the Saudi coast.

  3. Complete domination over the White and Blue Nile rivers.

  4. Possession of the Sinai Peninsula, the key to power over the Palestinians. Yasser Arafat, like Qaddafi in Libya, served Egypt as an obedient tool.

All of these old truisms have been swept away. The pillars upholding Egypt’s regional standing have crumbled in the face of the Bush initiatives with regard to Libya and Sudan and Yasser Arafat’s 40-month violent confrontation against Israel.

Sudan’s President Umar Hasan Ahmad al-Bashir paid a courtesy visit to Mubarak early this week. Our sources report that he pointedly refrained from consulting with the Egyptian president on his accord with rebel leader John Garang or the new US alliance with Sudan. He simply presented them as an accomplished fact.

Mubarak, while taking deep offense, nonetheless held on to his temper. The last thing he needs is a feud with another of his neighbors after his falling-out with Qaddafi. He therefore smiled to his guest through clenched teeth.

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