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 (see Arab
Relations , ch. 4).
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
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
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.
Data as of 1987