Despite a flurry of fence-mending visits to his northwest African neighbors, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi is making only symbolic improvements in his strained relations within the region, according to various observers.
On Thursday, Qaddafi ended three days of talks with Tunisian leaders at the seaside home town of Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba. In the past seven weeks, Qaddafi has visited each of the states in the Maghreb region of northwest Africa in what is widely seen as an effort to break out of a deepening isolation there.
But Libya's neighbors are viewing his sudden diplomatic initiative with caution, according to Arab and western analysts.
"For both Morocco and Tunisia, the current Libyan roles in the dispute in Chad and the Palestine Liberation Organization are reminders of what they view as past interference in their own affairs," one Arab political observer here said.
At the end of June, Qaddafi paid his first visit in 14 years to Morocco's King Hassan, long a bitter opponent. Libya also recently has signed agreements for cultural and economic exchanges with Morocco and Tunisia.
Qaddafi, who also made surprise visits this summer to North Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, has said that his initiative is aimed at improving Arab unity.
But a western diplomat in Rabat, the Moroccan capital, said Qaddafi is motivated by "an increasing sense of isolation in the two regions most important to him--Africa and the Arab world."
Other analysts in the region agree, recalling that Qaddafi twice failed to convene a summit meeting of the Organization of African Unity in Tripoli last year. The meetings failed to achieve a quorum when many states boycotted them to protest Libya's support for rebel movements in Chad and the Western Sahara. Qaddafi then was rebuffed in his efforts to become this year's chairman of the OAU, a position that went instead to Ethiopia's Mengistu Haile Mariam.
Observers said Qaddafi also is scrambling to avoid being left out of a rapprochement begun earlier this year among Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. "This trialogue is a product of a change in Algeria's foreign policy, which has become much more pragmatic," a diplomat in Tunis said.
Last spring, Algeria and Morocco agreed to normalize relations, which had been strained for several years because of Algeria's support for the Polisario guerrillas fighting Morocco for independence in Western Sahara. Algeria also signed a friendship treaty with Tunisia establishing closer political and economic ties.
Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian leaders say the current reconciliation is just the first step in building a "grand Maghreb" along the lines of the European Community. They have left the door conspicuously open for Libyan participation, but only on the basis of "mutual respect and noninterference."
The Maghreb leaders have been careful, at least partly for reasons of Arab unity, not to snub Qaddafi. Tunisia, by far the smallest country in the region, has what one diplomat calls "great security concerns at stake" in maintaining a civil relationship with Libya.
"From Qaddafi's point of view, his visits here and to Morocco have been a symbolic success, because he can demonstrate to the world that he is not utterly excluded by his neighbors, especially since they are pro-western neighbors," said an Arab political observer in Tunis.
But observers in Rabat, Algiers and Tunis say Qaddafi has failed to eliminate a deep suspicion among his neighbors, whose relations with Tripoli remain cautious.
"The Tunisians now know Qaddafi too well to rush into a close relationship with him," a diplomat here said. "Chad isn't teaching the Tunisians anything new about Libya."
Tunisian-Libyan relations have been more or less strained since 1974, when Tunisia backed out of a merger agreement with Libya. In 1980, Tunisia accused Libya of attempting to overthrow the Tunisian government.
More recently, the two countries have split sharply over the PLO. Tunisia, like Morocco, long has supported Yasser Arafat's leadership of the Palestinian movement, and Tunis now shelters Arafat and his closest supporters following their expulsion from Beirut last year. Libya has openly supported dissident elements of the PLO who want to remove Arafat--a position that even hard-line Algeria has disapproved.
Tunisian political observers said the joint communique released last week after talks between Qaddafi and Tunisian leaders was intentionally vague on the issues of Chad and the PLO in order to paper over the differences between Tunis and Tripoli.
The Moroccan newspaper l'Opinion, with close links to the Foreign Ministry, commented earlier this month that "the experience of these last years has taught us not to become inordinately enthusiastic nor to give too much credit to certain of Tripoli's positions, especially when they concern the improving or normalizing of Libyan-Arab relations."
The paper accused the Libyans of encouraging the Polisario guerrillas to resume attacks against Morocco in Western Sahara last month, after a one-year lull in the fighting.
Algeria is wary of Libyan support for the Polisario, fearing that the guerrilla group could be turned against it. Algeria's relations with Libya are also troubled by an outstanding Libyan claim on Algerian territory along their common border.
Western Sahara remains the most divisive issue among the Maghreb states. The Organization of African Unity's Saharan peace plan calls for direct negotiations between Morocco and the Polisario to set up a cease-fire and a referendum to determine the future of the territory, which was relinquished by Spain as a colony in 1975. But Hassan has refused such talks, stalling the application of the peace plan.
Hassan warned last month that, even should the Saharans vote for independence, he would not hand the territory over "on a golden platter" to the Polisario.
In Rabat, King Hassan reaffirmed his readiness to organize a self-determination referendum in Western Sahara and said that anyone wanting the vote to be delayed was afraid of the outcome, Reuter reported.
The king was speaking to the nation Saturday night on the 30th anniversary of the deposing by France of his father, Mohammed V.
He said he was confident that a rapprochement could be reached between Algeria and Morocco that would not tamper with the territorial integrity of the two countries.
"We want to crown this reality by an international recognition of our sovereignty over the Western Sahara, and this is the reason why we reaffirm our readiness to organize a referendum and that any side wanting to delay its organization is afraid of its results," the king said.
Qaddafi has softened his talk on the Saharan issue; he no longer necessarily demands independence for the territory. Still, at the close of his talks in Tunisia last week, Qaddafi said Libya's support for the Polisario "will not change."
According to informed Western analysts in the region, it is the Western Sahara issue that has prevented a meeting among the heads of state of Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania. Three such proposed meetings have failed in the planning stages since last winter, according to the analysts, because of Libya's insistence on including the Polisario--a condition Morocco rejects.