Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's statement that he would like to see his country join the NATO alliance seems certain to provoke a heated controversy within Egypt and the Arab world.
The Sadat statement highlights an increasingly close military cooperation between Egypt and the United States -- a cooperation both beneficial and, at the same time, dangerous to the Egyptian leadership if it becomes too close.
"Personally, I am not at all afraid to join NATO," Mr. Sadat told October magazine. "The danger that faces us is the same."
But President Sadat added that he has refrained from either joining the NATO alliance or allowing "the permanent presence of American bases" in Egypt because of the opposition such moves would provoke.
The common danger that Mr. Sadat speaks of is from the Soviet Union and its allies. Sadat has asked the United States to rid itself of its "Vietnam complex" and to be "vigilant" to avoid giving the whole Middle East to the Soviet Union "on a golden platter."
The Egyptian government feels particularly threatened by an arms buildup in pro-Soviet Libya next door. Egyptian Minister of Defense Muhammad Abdel Halim Abu Ghazzala claims that Libya is now a Soviet arms depot with 2,000 armored personnel carriers, 400 airplanes, and 2,700 tanks, some of which are Russian T- 72s, a modern Soviet tank not even fully deployed among Warsaw Pact members.
General Ghazzala asks: "What are the Libyans going to do when they cannot crew even a third of this number?"
The Libyan inability to man this large quantity of war materiel leads Egyptian military strategists to believe that it is being deployed for the ultimate use of Soviet-bloc soldiers. General Ghazzala warns that "it would be very easy for the Soviet Union if there is a crisis . . . to fly any number of personnel from anywhere to be stationed in Libya."
He notes that Libya already has some 5,000 Cuban advisers, 2,000 East German advisers, 40 Syrian pilots, and 60 pilots each from the Soviet Union, Cuba, and East Germany.
Egypt has responded to this threat by developing a close military relationship with the United States. This month General Ghazzala visited Washington to request four E-20 Hawkeye early-warning planes to keep an eye on developments on the Libyan border. The US is already providing Egypt with some
Military cooperation has meant joint training maneuvers as well as new equipment. A squadron of American Phantom jets spent three months training in Egypt's western desert last summer. In November, 1,400 American troops from the US Rapid Deployment Force took part with the Egyptian Army in two weeks of desert war games.
President Sadat has repeatedly offered the United States military facilities to protect the oil-rich states of the Gulf in the event of an emergency.
Still, Sadat has been sensitive to internal and external opposition to his close relationship with the United States. He has been reluctant to sign a formal agreement giving the US access to the Red Sea base at Ras Banas, a 45 -minute jet flight across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia. Instead he prefers to offer "temporary facilities."
In October, when the squadron of US Phantom jets returned to the States, Sadat refused to allow the airmen's temporary barracks to stay in place for the Rapid Deployment Force that would arrive in November.
This earlier sensitivity to criticism of the Egyptian-American military relationship makes Sadat's expressed personal desire to join NATO more surprising. It seems certain to aggravate opposition to the American presence in Egypt.
In December, Gen. Saad Shazli, a former Egyptian chief of staff now in exile, warned Egypt against joining the NATO alliance, saying that it would force other countries in the area to join the Warsaw Pact. In fact, Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi, now visiting Moscow, has already threatened to take such a step.
Leftists within Egypt will certainly be provoked by the statement, since they already think that Egypt is involved in the wrong battle. "The people are not interested in fighting communism or saving Gulf oil for the West," Dr. Helmi Hadidi, an opposition Socialist Labor Party member of Parliament.
"The more the government talks of fighting communism, the more people think the real struggle has been forgotten."
Sadat's opponents in the Arab and Islamic world seem certain to use the idea of Egypt joining NATO to assail Sadat. One Palestinian leader accused the Egyptian President of allowing all decisions affecting Egypt to be made in Washington and then telephoned to him.
Iranian President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr put it more bluntly, accusing Sadat of being a "stooge" of American interests.