Libya and Arab Unity

Libya and Arab Unity

Qadhafi became the foremost exponent of Arab unity in the 1970s. Although all Arab governments endorsed the idea in principle, most observed that conditions were not right for putting it into practice or that unity would come only at the end of a long process of historical evolution. But Qadhafi rejected these views. As he conceived it, Arab unity was not an ideal but a realistic goal. He agreed that achieving Arab unity was a process that required sequential and intermediate stages of development, but the challenge he posed to other Arab leaders was that the process had to begin somewhere. Qadhafi expressed his determination to make a contribution to the process and offered Libya as the leavening agent.

Throughout 1970 Qadhafi consulted with Egyptian and Sudanese leaders about how to achieve some form of union. Nasser died in September 1970, but Egyptian participation in the unity talks continued under his successor, President Anwar as Sadat. It was the young Qadhafi, however, who moved to assume Nasser's mantle as the ideological leader of Arab nationalism.

At the request of its new head of state, Lieutenant General Hafiz al Assad, the unity talks were expanded to include Syria. After further meetings, Qadhafi, Sadat, and Assad simultaneously announced in April 1971 the formation of a federation of Libya, Egypt, and Syria. The three heads of state signed a draft constitution in August that was overwhelmingly approved in referenda in all three countries. Sadat was named the first president of a council of heads of state that was to be the governing body for the Federation of Arab Republics (FAR), which came into existence on paper on January 1, 1972. Broad plans were drawn up to provide for a full-fledged merger affecting the legal systems, laws, employment, armed forces, and foreign policies of all three countries. Agreement on specific measures, however, eluded the FAR leaders, and the federation never progressed beyond making symbolic gestures of unity, such as the adoption of a common flag.

For Qadhafi, the FAR was a step on the road to achieving his ultimate goal: the comprehensive union of the "Arab Nation." Although he remained the federation's most ardent backer, Qadhafi was never satisfied with the approach taken by his Egyptian and Syrian partners toward what he termed the "battle plan" for confrontation with Israel. Nonetheless, he initiated talks with Sadat on full political union between Egypt and Libya, which would merge the neighboring countries into a single state within the framework of the FAR.

At first glance, the proposed merger seemed like the mating of a whale with a minnow. Egypt's population was 34 million, Libya's under 2 million. But Libya's annual per capita income was fourteen times that of Egypt. Its fiscal reserves in 1972 were estimated at more than the equivalent of US$2.5 billion--at least ten times the amount held by Egypt.

Sadat pledged support for the project at the conclusion of a conference with Qadhafi in August 1972. Soon, however, real obstacles to the merger arose, including the serious personal disagreement that developed between the two leaders over a timetable for the union. Qadhafi called for immediate unification, the framing of a constitution to follow; Sadat insisted on step-by- step integration and thorough preparation of the instruments of union. During 1973 Qadhafi went so far as to offer to resign as Libyan head of state if his departure would placate Sadat, whose enthusiasm for the merger had waned conspicuously. Qadhafi also organized a "holy march" on Cairo by an estimated 30,000 Libyans to demonstrate Libyan support for the merger, but to no avail. The September 1, 1973, date that Sadat had set for final action to be taken on the merger passed without notice in Cairo, hardly a surprising development because many Egyptians as well as Libyans had come to oppose the project. Opposition stemmed from the historical antipathy between Egyptians and Libyans and such factors as the incompatibility of the two political systems, with Egypt being considerably more democratic than Libya as well as more secular in orientation.

Qadhafi envisioned the combination of Libya's wealth and Egypt's manpower and military capacity as the key element for the success of the Arab struggle against Israel. For example, to further this success, Libyan aircraft were secretly transferred to the Egyptian air force and subsequently saw action in the October 1973 War. It was that war with Israel, however, that proved to be the watershed in relations between the two Arab states. The joint Egyptian-Syrian operation came as a surprise to Qadhafi, who had been excluded from its planning by Sadat and Assad. The Libyan leader castigated his erstwhile FAR partners for wasting resources in fighting a war for limited objectives, and he was appalled by Sadat's agreement to a cease-fire after the successful Israeli counteroffensive. He accused the Egyptian leader of cowardice and of purposely sabotaging the federation. In response, Sadat revealed that he had intervened in 1973 to prevent a planned Libyan submarine attack on the S.S. Queen Elizabeth II while the British liner was carrying a Jewish tourist group in the Mediterranean. Thereafter, relations between the two leaders degenerated into a series of charges and countercharges that effectively ended any talk of merger.

In the mid-1970s, Qadhafi undertook a major armaments program paid for by the higher post-1973 oil revenues. He wished to play a major role in Middle East affairs based on military strength and increasing uneasiness with Sadat's policies. To acquire sophisticated weapons, Qadhafi turned to the Soviet Union, with which his relations grew closer as Sadat leaned more and more toward a peaceful solution of the Arab-Israeli problem. Mutual suspicion between Sadat and Qadhafi, plus Egyptian charges of Libyan subversion, led to a brief but sharp shooting war along their common frontier in July 1977. Egyptian forces advanced a short distance into Libya before Algerian mediation ended the fighting. The conflict occasioned the departure from Libya of thousands of Egyptians employed in the petroleum industry, agriculture, commerce, education, and the bureaucracy, causing disruption of Libyan economic activities and public services.

The major break between Egypt and Libya came over Sadat's journey to Jerusalem the following November and the conclusion of a separate peace with Israel in September 1978. Not only were diplomatic relations between Egypt and Libya broken, but Libya played a leading role in organizing the Steadfastness and Confrontation Front in December 1977. The front's members were Libya, Syria, Algeria, the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen), and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), all of whom bitterly opposed Sadat's peace initiatives. Qadhafi favored the isolation of Egypt as punishment, because he adamantly rejected a peaceful solution with Israel. He subsequently toned down his more extreme rhetoric in the interest of forging unity among Arab states in opposing the policies of President Sadat and his successor, Husni Mubarak.

Qadhafi's quest for unity on his western border was similarly fruitless. A proposed union with Tunisia in 1974 was immediately repudiated by Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia's president. This incident, together with Tunisian accusations of Libyan subversion and a quarrel over demarcation of the continental shelf with its oil fields, thoroughly soured relations. Then in early 1980 a group of disgruntled Tunisians staged an abortive revolt at Gafsa in central Tunisia, disguised as a cross-border attack from Algeria. Bourguiba accused Qadhafi of engineering the incident and suspended diplomatic relations with Tripoli. Qadhafi denied involvement, but relations between Tripoli and Tunis remained at low ebb.

Having failed to achieve union with Egypt and Tunisia, Qadhafi turned once again to Syria. In September 1980, Assad agreed to yet another merger with Libya. This attempt at a unified state came at a time when both countries were diplomatically isolated. As part of the agreement, Libya undertook to pay a debt of US$1 billion that Syria owed the Soviet Union for weapons.

Ironically, this successful union with Syria confounded Qadhafi's pan-Arab ambitions. When war broke out between Iran and Iraq in September 1980, Libya and Syria were the only Arab states to give unqualified support to non-Arab Iran. At the same time, the war brought a break in Libya's relations with Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Yet another obstacle arose in December 1981 when Qadhafi had to contend with the first of two airline hijackings carried out by Lebanese Shias seeking information about their leader, Imam Musa Sadr, who had disappeared while on a visit to Libya in 1978. Both hijackings ended without release of or news about Musa Sadr, whose disappearance badly tarnished Libya's image among Shias in Lebanon, Iran, and elsewhere.

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