President Hosni Mubarak's rising threats to take strong action against neighboring Libya to avenge the hijacking and destruction of an Egyptair passenger jet in Malta on Sunday have failed thus far to create the kind of public support that would encourage a large-scale retaliation, analysts here asserted today.
Egypt has been building its case for a move, perhaps even war, against Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi slowly over the course of years by describing him as a terrorist and backer of terrorists, a mad man, a dangerous fool. And today Mubarak described the Libyan connection as "very clear."
But in the grim aftermath of this weekend's Egyptair hijacking, much talk in Cairo has begun to focus on the carnage rather than the culprits in the hijacking. And at least one senior member of the opposition Wafd Party, Wahad Rafat, has denounced the commando action as hasty and irresponsible. Rafat yesterday called for the resignation of the Egyptian defense minister, Field Marshal Abdel Halim Abu Ghazala.
At the same time, while few voices in Egypt have yet questioned the official allegations against Qaddafi and the Palestinian "dissidents" he shelters as the authors of the crime, little hard evidence has been shown to the public to convince them drastic action is necessary.
At a news conference today, the president did not directly rule out a military move against his western neighbor.
"We never call for war, but we call for peace, and if we ever have to go to war, it is because we want to bring peace," said Mubarak, in response to a reporter's question as to whether he had considered a military option in response to the hijacking.
"A decision to launch a war is not an easy decision," he said.
Yet the Egyptian leader is operating under broad constraints, according to western diplomats, who feel he may still find himself too weak politically at home and in the Arab world to embark on a large-scale retaliation directly against Libya.
Mubarak is "not given to adventurism," as one analyst put it, and he knows his greatest strength as president has been peace and, however dim sometimes, the promise of prosperity that comes with it.
Mubarak's concern throughout the four years of his presidency has been to continue cutting back the size of Egypt's armed forces -- from almost a million men in 1973 to less than half that number now. The resources freed have been essential to sustaining and, Mubarak clearly hopes, reviving the nation's hard-pressed economy.
To embark now on a war, according to several Egyptian officials and diplomats, would be a risk that Mubarak could ill afford -- and probably will not take.
Egypt's president often is described as a cautious, deliberate man, and despite some of his fiery rhetoric and accusations, he appears to be moving deliberately.
Even as tensions mounted with Libya before the hijacking, Mubarak repeatedly said he bore no animosity against the people of Libya and would welcome peace with them.
The problem, Mubarak reiterated, was with Qaddafi himself. And few analysts here see open warfare as the most effective way to get rid of Qaddafi.
After a thwarted attempt by Libyan agents to assassinate Libyan dissidents here earlier this month, several Egyptian officials, western diplomats and the dissidents themselves suggested that the only force capable of bringing Qaddafi down was his own Army.
Alongside the growing regional tensions that began afresh with Libya's expulsion of thousands of Egyptian and Tunisian workers in August, there also have been increasing reports and speculation that many of Qaddafi's own officers are upset with his international adventures and his erratic internal policies.
Foremost among the sources of discontent, according to reports by western journalists from the Libyan capital, is the civil war in Chad, where Qaddafi is believed to maintain as many as 5,000 troops supporting rebel leader Goukouni Oueddei.
But the threat of a larger war might be expected to provoke still more rebellious sentiments within Libya's Army. A fight against Egypt would be, if not stopped in a matter of days, extremely costly for Libya.
Its Army of about 70,000 would face Egyptian forces of about 470,000. Its economy, already suffering serious shortages and disruption because of chaotic administration and dropping oil prices, would have difficulty financing a major confrontation.
In September, Egypt's semiofficial newspaper Al Ahram asserted that Libyan officers mutinied and tried to kill Qaddafi rather than prepare for war against Tunisia, as they allegedly had been ordered to do.
While this report is widely viewed by western diplomats as thinly based disinformation, it may have been intended to create expectations among Egypt's people and perhaps the Libyans themselves that such mutinous actions are possible and imminent.
Because Egypt's Army has potentially overwhelming advantages over Libya's, it is in a military position to launch selective attacks, small incursions or simple one-shot retaliatory raids against Qaddafi which he would find hard to counter effectively.
But Egypt remains sensitive to the opinion of the Arab world. As recently as last week, even as Mubarak denied that he was "chasing" recognition from the Arab countries that broke relations with Egypt after Camp David, he clearly was courting them during meetings with their leaders in Oman at that country's national-day celebration.
Terrorism -- particularly through third parties -- has become a common means for hostile Arab governments to attack each other. But frontal assaults are another matter, and, when they have begun, the Arab world usually has intervened quickly to pull the combatants apart.
This was the case in the brief border clash between Egypt and Libya in 1977, when both sides claimed victory. There would be little profit for Mubarak in such an adventure now.
According to this analysis, Mubarak is taunting Qaddafi while keeping up his guard -- like one man shoving another as a prelude to a brawl. And as Mubarak turns up the political pressure and the accusations against Libya's "terrorist" leader, he stands to make Qaddafi's impotence ever more apparent.