A military map kept in a locked cabinet in the office of Gen. Abdel Ghany Gamassi, Egyptian defense minister, reveals more clearly than the words of politicians how far Soviet penetration of key African states has proceeded, a penetration the United States plays by Marquis of Queensberry rules.
It shows that Soviet military advisers in Libya have doubled to 2,200 since Egypt gave Libya a swift blow last year in a bloody border dispute. It shows that those Soviet advisers are training Libyan troops down to the company level, with three to five "technicians" assigned each battalion.
Egypt today has little to fear from oil-rich but relatively powerless Libya, headed by the radical pro-Soviet leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi. But the legends on Gen. Gamassi's colored map point to this conclusion: While the United States flinches from any use of superpower power, the Soviet Union is penetrating key African countries with no such scruples, using money, propaganda, dirty tricks, guns and Cuba.
Egypt is a principal target. "They want to get even with President Sadat," Gamassi said, for Anwar Sadat's expulsion of Soviet influence here in 1972.
Speaking with diplomatic restraint, Boutros Ghaly, Sadat's chief African specialist, expressed the same point differently. He told us that major African states south of Egypt, where for centuries Egypt has blocked potential enemies to protect its Nile River lifeline, fear that the United States has "drawn a Korea-type defense line" excluding Africa. Another high Egyptian official said that "the cold war has moved to Africa, and any idea that the continent can be ruled off bounds in the U.S.-Soviet competition is an illusion."
Sadat was specific: Soviet Pressure in Ethiopia, Chad, Sudan and Libya, with an eastern anchor in South Yemen at the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula, is "the first belt" of Soviet influence across Africa.
The "second belt" is targeted across southern Africa, from Angola to Mozambique. Neither belt has been buckled. In the north, for example, France is successfully contesting the Soviets in Chad. Sudan, Egypt's southern neighbor and close ally, has turned back Soviet efforts to exploit cultural, religious and racial differences between the Arab north and the black south. But the new Soviet presence in Ethiopia is a mounting threat to Sudan - and thus to Egypt.
The problem for Sadat is the future, as the Soviet Union pushes its aggressive role and the United States keeps insisting that Africa is no place for East-West confrontation. During Vice President Mondale's brief stop in Alexandria to see Sadat, the Egyptian president warned that Moscow's free hand in Africa was shredding confidence in the United States and creating Soviet strong points throughout the continent for future opportunities.
Sadat's worry seems reasonable. Ever since he ordered 15,000 or more Soviet advisers out of Egypt, cut dependence on the Kremlin and edged toward the United States, Moscow has threatened retaliation. Sadat claims that a dressing down of then-foreign minister Ismail Fahmi by Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev in Moscow two years ago amounted to an "ultimatum."
He described that ultimatum to us as follows: "Tell Sadat we shall continue to have our plans in Africa and he will meet the consequences of trying to oppose us there."
The "first belt," across north-central Africa, if completed, would threaten Egypt with encirclement, yet neither Egypt nor any other anti-Soviet country can begin to muster adequate resources in response.
In fact, however, Sadat knows that a U.S. counterstrategy of the kind envisioned by him is not today under serious discussion in Washington. The fashionable talk among State Department political appointees is that, if given enough rope, the Russians will hang themselves in Africa.
Compounding Sadat's concern is the predictable turn to new anti-U.S. radicalism throughout the Arab world and across North Africa if the United States fails to win Israel's acceptance of a Mideast peace plan. "If the United States now shows that Israel can deafen its ears to the president of the United States," one official told us, "the future may belong to Moscow in this part of the world."
In Short, evidence that the United States could not even deliver Israel for a Mideast settlement with the Arabs would reinforce skepticism here over Washington's dubious response to Soviet activism in Africa. The two - Middle East and Africa - are halves of the same whole, a political fact that Jimmy Carter should understand.