In Washington this week, the Obama administration faced an awkward moment of comparison between the heavy guns it fired to get Hosni Mubarak out the door ten days ago and its tied tongue on the popular uprising against the outrageous Libyan ruler, Muammar Qaddafi.
In the first case, President Barack Obama personally and publicly ordered Mubarak's generals to oust him – in sharp contrast to the White House's conduct on Libya – belated condemnation of Qaddafi's brutal methods but no real action. However, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources, the administration has begun casting about for military options to halt the civil war emerging out of the Libyan uprising.
Up until Tuesday night, Feb. 22, Washington thought that if matters became desperate enough to require military action, the European Union would take care of it. But that was before Qaddafi stood symbolically on the ruined balcony of his old residence, which was bombed by the Americans in April 1986, and declared Libya was in the throes of civil war that would be very bloody.
Because the Europeans don't have substantial forces trained for landings, the US administration canvassed their governments about deploying European naval and air might. They would not be used to directly strike Qaddafi's power centers, but rather to impose a sea blockade on the naval bases from which Qaddafi Tuesday night, Feb. 22 began striking the two rebellious Cyrenaica provincial towns of Benghazi and Tobruk. They would also enforce a no-fly zone in Libyan air space and force Qaddafi to ground the air transports ferrying his forces from point to point to crack down on protesters.
Europeans in no hurry for military intervention – Egyptians hesitate
It was soon evident that the Europeans were in no hurry to resort to military force in Libya, unless their economies were fatally impacted (See a separate item on Libyan investments in Europe and the fallout on the Russian arms industry.) or their supplies of oil and gas at immediate risk.
(Libya covers 32 percent of Italy's oil needs; 14 percent of Germany's; 10 percent of France's and 9 percent of Spain's. Libya supplies 14 percent of the other EU nations' oil demands combined.)
Only Britain's Conservative-led government headed by David Cameron appeared to be flexing muscle over the evacuation of British workers from Libya. Thursday, Feb. 24, the UK's Royal Navy frigate was posted off Libya and its SBS special marine rescue force, with the Mercian Regiment for support, and three military Hercules, were on standby for rescue missions.
However, Washington decided to look outside Europe for an army to go into Libya. Its eye fell on the Egyptian army. But when over last weekend, the US first took the matter up with Egyptian Defense Minister and head of the Supreme Army Council ruling the country, Field Marshal Mohammed Tantawi, the silence from Cairo was eloquent, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and Washington sources report. The generals clearly had enough on their plates with sorting out the mess left in the wake of the turbulent uprising which removed Mubarak and were too busy to get involved in other troubles.
Unbearable economic strain on Egypt from returning laborers
But when the Egyptians employed in Libya starting flocking back home, the military rulers changed their minds and decided to give the American proposition a second look. They were moved by six considerations:
1. Just over 1.5 million Egyptians employed in Libya regularly deposit monthly paychecks totaling roughly $1.5 billion in Egyptian banks. Cairo, with 82 million mouths to feed, cannot afford to lose this major source of revenue and foreign currency at the best of times – least of all in the current state of economic havoc.
2. A civil war in Libya would cripple the economy and cause the Egyptian laborers to be sacked and sent home. Egypt is in no shape to absorb this number of jobless. Libya and its economy must therefore be stabilized.
3. Deposed President Mubarak was on good terms with Qaddafi. So the military rulers are uneasy about being seen by the people continuing to hobnob with the Libyan ruler and, worse still, associating with an Arab dictator harshly suppressing a popular uprising against him.
Fearing to get directly in touch with Qaddafi and establish relations, the Egyptian military are left with not much more than two choices between passivity and military intervention in the Libyan conflict.
Cairo and Washington alike are confronted with one of the negative consequences of Mubarak's exit from the Middle East scene: While in the presidential palace, he had the Libyan ruler's ear and would have been able to set up a backdoor link to him for the US administration and helped broker middle ground to defuse the crisis.
Fear of spillover into Egypt through split tribes
The diplomatic void left by his departure has not been filled. Monday night, Feb 21, the US turned to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to intercede with Qaddafi – unsuccessfully, as it turned out.
4. The apparently unstoppable impetus of Libya's civil war is bringing home to the military junta in Cairo the possible spillover into Egypt. Important Bedouin tribes of Cyrenaica, which are partly nomadic and partly sedentary, are split between eastern Libya and Egypt's Western Desert and maintain strong cross-border family ties. The largest is the Awlad Ali, which numbers about one million souls and occupies territories between Al-Sallum and Alexandria in western Egypt.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources report that Wednesday, Feb. 23, a special delegation from Qaddafi crossed into Egypt to persuade Awlad Ali tribal chiefs to open a second front against the Cyrenaica rebels and attack them to their rear from the east.
Egyptian military intelligence agents soon espied the Libyans and drove them back across the border. They sternly warned the Awlad Ali chieftains against playing ball with the Libyan ruler. Cairo fears that the showdown between the Libyan dictator and his people might ignite Saharan Egypt. The fallout on the still-to-be stabilized general population of Egypt would be incalculable.
To be on the safe side, our sources report that the Egyptian army Wednesday night massed troops on the Libyan border to seal it against further incursions.
Partitioning Libya would send Qaddafi back to Sahara
5. As of now, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and intelligence sources report that Washington and Cairo are discussing a limited Egyptian excursion into Libya. It will be presented as a US-backed Egyptian campaign, with some European participation, embarked on as the only recourse for terminating Libya's civil war and forcing its dictator to relinquish power.
But the immediate mission will be for an Egyptian air umbrella to close the air space over Cyrenaica against Libyan air and sea raids. US military planners calculate that no more than a single Egyptian armored division in Cyrenaica – or even a half of one – would suffice to curb Qaddafi's offensive on the rebels and force his troops to withdraw.
6. The scenario taking shape in Washington and Cairo according to our sources is this: Limited Egyptian military intervention supported by European sanctions would result in Libya's partition into two national entities: Cyrenaica and Tripolitania, which will also include the Fezzan region.
Each would have a half-share in Libya's oil wells. Qaddafi and his family would be pushed into their tribal lands in the Sahara, whence his influence and freedom of action would be severely curtailed.
The trouble is that this is a scratch plan put together to meet an unforeseen crisis, whereas its target, Muammar Qaddafi, was not caught off-guard. He was fully prepared for his people to rise up against him and even for possible foreign military intervention to remove him – as will be shown in a separate article in this issue.