The bumpy blacktop road that meanders through the blowing sand a long the azure waters of the Mediterranean is Egypt's only land link to Libya and all of North Africa. On this bright, hot Sunday it is almost empty of traffic, a sure sign that there is trouble at the Libyan border.

The interurban taxis that normally come rolling in laden with consumer goods from Libyan markets are missing. So are the tourists who come here for the beaches. Military police at roadblocks keep foreigners from proceeding any farther westward toward the frontier, and few Egyptians are making the trip either.

Mersa Matruh, the principal city of Egypt's northwest coast, is at least 100 miles from any of the military action in the Libyan-Egyptian border war, but it is the closest the Egyptian authorities are allowing outsiders to go. Even at this distance, the impact of the conflict is striking.

The soldiers who normally populate the streets of this picturesque provincial capital are mostly gone - moved up to the front, they say here, even before the fighting started.

The coastal railway, which used to carry passengers all the way to the border station at salloum, now terminates here. An occasional cargo plane lifts off from the nearby air base, heading westward. The city itself is quiet, quieter than it should be, an indication that as a major stopping point on the North African highway, it will soon feel the economic impact of the closing of the border.

The coastal highway is virtually Egypt's only land link with any other country. If it stays close, it will also affect the Egyptians who make their living carrying thousands of their fellow countrymen back and forth to jobs in Libya.

Civilian traffic on the road between here and Alexandria, 170 miles to the east, consisted of a few taxis and buses, but there was surprisingly little military traffic. Reports that the Egyptians are using this road and the railway parallel to it to rush troops and supplies to the Libyan front appear to be greatly exaggerated.

The most interesting military vehicles to be seen were not those along the road but the rusting hulks of the World War II equipment on display at the museum of El Alamein. The only train carrying war material had eight tanks on flatcars but was standing idle on a siding without a locomotive.


There was only a single military convoy of eight vehicles rolling westward. It consisted of supply trucks, water tankers, a road grader and an ordinary street sweeper painted in military camouflage. No troops could be seen moving westward, aside from a solitary soldier riding a camel across the sand.