Cairo — ''You Americans made Sadat into a great hero. But what good did he ever do for us?'' ''Yeah. What was the point of all his fine uniforms? And all the show and the parades?''
''And his flashy wife.''
''Right. Some hero! What about the fact I can't even feed my family?''
''Sadat always did well for other countries. But here, it was all poverty and chaos. . . .''
The six men hunched around a small cafe table (one of dozens spilling onto a dirt alleyway flanked by tenements) and sipped strong Arabic coffee. A large hubble-bubble gurgled at their feet, its tube full of tobacco smoke passed from mouth to mouth. At the next table an identical pipe drew hashish instead. Backgammon pieces clacked sharply against worn wooden boards. The children, except for a few chasing a tiny puppy to and fro, were long since asleep. The women were home. Arabic music wailed from radios somewhere.
''Mubarak,'' said the oldest of the men, ''we don't know much about. But so far he seems good.''
''He is tough,'' another broke in. ''He will pay more attention to Egypt, to his own people.''
''He is simple, and honest,'' said another.
''He won't tolerate corruption.''
''And he will go back to the Arabs. . . . Sure, there will be peace with Israel. A correct peace. What's the use of another war? But he will get back the rest of the Sinai next year, and then he'll make up with the Saudis, too.''
''The Americans give us money. But they always look at the accounts. The Arabs don't even bother.
''The Saudis have oil. . . . What do we have? Nile water?''
''The Americans support Mubarak,'' said the youngest of the men. ''That is good. But they haven't been able to trip him up like they did Sadat. They can't figure him out yet.''
A police jeep clanked into the alleyway. The men fell quiet as it passed. Arms waved and fingers pointed to guide it among the encroaching tables.
''We could get arrested, talking to a journalist like this,'' joked one of the men as the jeep turned up a side street.
''Yeah,'' another rebounded, chuckling. ''But nowadays, he could get arrested , too.'' He turned more serious: ''Sadat, you know, always used to talk about democracy. He tried to treat everyone the same, extremists or normal people. And look where it got him.''
''Those guys who killed him, they wanted to bring a Khomeini here. We can't allow that. Mubarak is right to make all these arrests. We know some of the extremists are still running around.''
''He has to arrest people even to keep men like us from fighting,'' ventured an older man. ''Look at what happened in Sharabia'' (a similar quarter nearby, where Muslims and Christians battled shortly before Sadat's murder).
''Especially now, one of us might say something that someone else doesn't like, and just like that, we'd be at each other.
''But now, we'd all get arrested. And that is how it should be.''
Muhammad Hosni Mubarak, weeks after taking over from the slain Anwar Sadat, is on a political honeymoon. He has also - partly because of, and partly in spite of, himself - raised a lot of expectations. His daunting challenge now, particularly on the chaotic economic front, is to fulfill them.
This, at the very least, will not be easy.
So far Mr. Mubarak is getting high marks from just abouteveryone, whether among Egyptians or Cairo's foreign diplomatic and business community. Even one determinedly cynical Egyptian intellectual gushed after a Mubarak state-of-the-nation address to parliament Nov. 8: ''It's been many years since Egypt has heard words like these . . . straightforward, talking to the needs of the people.''
The new President has moved quickly to assure a stable transition of power. He has created the impression of new direction, new possibilities in his country. Although at pains to avoid the grandiose promises of his predecessor - ''I will never make a pledge I cannot fulfill,'' he told parliament - he has cultivated a can-do image. There will be less talk, the implication is, but more action.
Discipline is the new President's watchword, and the economy his top priority. If his latest speech is any indication, he will seek the earliest improvement in areas most crucial to Egypt's growing army of poor: supplies of affordable food and housing.
''Mubarak is a man who looks for practical results and is tough when he doesn't get them,'' says one Egyptian who knows him well. A Western businessman adds that the new president seems ''the first in modern Egypt with proven capability as a manager,'' having been credited with rebuilding the Air Force from ruin after the 1967 Mideast war.
And Egyptian officials - slowly, surely, if still discreetly, beginning to criticize their murdered former boss - say that yes, Mr. Sadat was a leader of genius, vision, and courage, but that he wasn't much good at day-to-day governing. He didn't follow through. He didn't rely sufficiently on advisers. Mr. Mubarak, they suggest, is different (and better) on all counts.
Yet the open question is whether even Mr. Mubarak's reputed firmness and managerial skill (none of his stated priorities differ much from those of Mr. Sadat at this point) can make headway against the country's intractable problems.
Bureaucracy ran amok (irrevocably, some say) under the lumbering Arab socialism of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the leader of the 1952 coup that toppled the monarchy. This is a point conveniently forgotten by the large numbers of Egyptians now glowingly comparing Mr. Mubarak to the still-revered Nasser. (They remember him for simplicity of style, and much lower prices. The low prices, too , had their negative flip-side. They were largely the result of a skewed series of subsidies and supports that helped bring the economy to a state of near collapse after the debilitating 1967 war.)
Corruption, too, did well under Mr. Nasser, and still better under Mr. Sadat. So did poverty, which increasingly has helped fuel a militant brand of Islam among many Egyptians - particularly among urban university students who expect to be not much better off with an education than without one.
At the same time, a large majority of Egyptians remains illiterate - a serious roadblock to at least some of the economic directions, like modernization of agriculture, that Mr. Mubarak might choose to take.
Add to this the fact that Egypt has more than 1 million more mouths to feed with each passing year and you have a set of problems that could undo even a managerial genius.
Mr. Mubarak clearly does not expect to resolve them any time soon. Nor, apparently, do most Egyptians count on him to do so. But they are looking for visible movement in this direction. And the new President approaches these tasks with the knowledge that the Islamic fanaticism that bedeviled his predecessor thrives, among other things, on poverty.
The new Egyptian leader has overseen the arrest of hundreds of Muslim extremists since taking office. On university campuses, meanwhile, the authorities have prodded fundamentalists to clip their emblemic beards or, in the case of women, to pack away their face veils. The students no longer look like fanatics, but it remains to be seen whether they still think that way.
''In the name of the prophet,'' mumbles the black-clad old woman, extending a craggy hand in hopes of a few piasters.
''Money. . . Baksheesh. . . Money.''
''Matchbooks. . . Matchbooks. . . One piaster.''
The voices, young and old, only barely penetrate the honking horns, screeching tires, and shrieking police whistles that are the din of daytime Cairo.
''Change money? Black market rate. . . .''
''Newspapers? Magazines? Books. . . .'' (The man offers, along with official publications, banned fundamentalist tracts. ''No one told me to stop selling them.'')
''Onions? Sixty piasters a kilogram. . . .'' (Above the officially set price for - poorly stocked - state stores.)
''Chicken? One pound-sixty-piasters a kilo. . . .'' (The state price is barely over one Egyptian pound, or US $1.30. Even the unofficial price, a year ago, was only (STR)1.40.)
At noon in the bustling Babel Louk produce market in central Cairo, the chicken vendor's wife prostrates herself on a tattered potato sack, pointed more or less toward Mecca, and prays to Allah.
At a vegetable stall nearby, a portly man with a thin mustache and sausagelike fingers sits under one of the thousands of small Mubarak posters that went up for the October referendum that confirmed him in office. Beside the stern photo of Mubarak is a smiling portrait of Anwar Sadat and his wife, Jihan.
''Mubarak is good. He is tough,'' the vendor says. ''Sadat? Well, Sadat is gone now. I suppose he was good too.''
''Peace . . . security . . . prosperity . . .'' pledges the Mubarak poster.
''But he won't crack down on our market,'' the salesman says confidently, ''only on the extremists. . . . I have to buy onions, let's say at 25 piasters. It would be illogical for me to have to sell them at less than that. I have to live.''
He lives very well, by Cairo standards. He sells produce at prices above the state norm to ''one airline, one hotel, and one restaurant. . . . They buy from me, at my price, because they know I can get the products when they need them.'' He also sells, at his prices, to ordinary Egyptians.
Outside the market area, a sleek Mercedes limousine with Alexandria license tags honks its way slowly through a sea of ragged, sometimes barefoot, pedestrians.
A military policeman nearby, part of Mr. Mubarak's vaunted security crackdown , notices a Western face and chirps: ''Hello. Me police. . . . Me knowing English. Welcome. Welcome in Egypt.''
Cars are raggedly double-parked on the main avenue nearby. Their doors are locked, but, in Cairo tradition, the hand brakes have been left off to allow trapped motorists to negotiate their way back into the snarl of traffic should they have the energy and desire to do so.
''Matches . . . one piaster,'' the refrain intrudes anew.''In the name of the prophet . . . in the name of Allah. . . .''
On paper, the Egyptian economy looks better than it has in years.
For the first time, Egypt is exporting oil, although on nowhere near the scale of major OPEC producers. This is not likely to change, despite reports of a further oil find since the Sadat assassination, but Egypt can still realistically expect to earn several billion dollars yearly from oil exports through the 1980s.
Transit earnings from the Suez Canal have been rising. Since Mr. Mubarak's inauguration, plans have gone ahead for a further widening of the waterway.
Growing numbers of Egyptians, skilled and unskilled, are also bailing out of their troubled domestic economy and looking for work elsewhere in the Arab world. Once there, they send back substantial amounts of hard currency.
Finally, tourist earnings have been on the upswing. Officials here are clearly concerned at a dip in tourism since the Sadat slaying - one recent tour boat to Luxor, southward on the Nile, was nearly empty. But the assumption is that, once foreigners are assured that Egypt's political situation is stable, the visitors will be back in growing numbers.
These four mainstays of the economy earned Egypt some $7 billion last year and have helped turn around a once heavily negative balance of payments. The US government, meanwhile, favors the Egyptians with its largest single aid package. Too, Mr. Sadat's bid to trim Nasserian state socialism in favor of an ''open door'' to foreign capital has brought some increased investment.
The hitch is that the Egyptian economy remains a near-perfect Malthusian tragedy, producing many more babies than goods and services. Some 43 million people - in a country almost all desert - already live in a habitable land area the size of West Virginia. Some 10 million of them live, jampacked, in Cairo. The country's population is mushrooming at the rate of more than 1 million each year. Egypt's poor are getting poorer, if only because there are more of them each day.
Almost all Egyptian landowners hold plots of less than one acre. The country supplies less than one-third of its own wheat (partly because prices are kept artificially low). The production of about half of Egypt's farmland is munched up by cattle, water buffaloes, and other animals used largely to help farm it.
Mr. Sadat's ''open-door policy'' has put foreign luxury items on store shelves. It has bought nice cars for a growing - but still, in national terms, tiny - middle class. The rich, even fewer, have got richer.
Investment projects - and, more than at any time in recent years, there is money for them - have tended to bog down in bureaucracy. It's ''a nightmare,'' one veteran foreign businessman here says, ''of paper-shuffling. . . buck-passing. . . just plain inefficiency.'' The state bureacracy has been growing, relentlessly, along with the country's population. One approach to curbing unemployment has been to give university graduates a chair, a desk, a pen, a stack of paper, and no clear responsibility in a government office somewhere.
Meanwhile, ''very little of the advances of the Egyptian economy has been felt by the very poor,'' remarks one Western analyst. Mr. Mubarak seems to realize this. He, in effect, said so in his Nov. 8 speech.
Even the not-so-poor, in Cairo, feel squeezed. They may be fortunate enough to make (STR)100 a month - many university graduates must settle for a guaranteed state job at less than half that - but inflation bites deeply into that sum. A pair of children's shoes can cost (STR)6 or more; shoes for adults cost twice as much. Meat, at the Babel Louk market, goes for more than (STR)3 a kilo. The monthly rent for a one-room ''furnished flat'' in the most run-down areas of Cairo is at least (STR)50. The minimum deposit for longer-range tenancy in a similar area is about (STR)1,000.
The very poor do not worry about prices. Tens upon tens of thousands of Cairenes just don't eat meat. They subsist on diets of Arabic flatbread - subsidized price: barely one American cent - and brown beans. Were there any doubt of how precarious is their existence, it was erased in January 1977:
It was then that Anwar Sadat moved to slash state subsidies on bread, a move that would have raised the price by a little more than a penny. The decision, as any good Western economist will tell you, made perfect sense. It would have saved the state hundreds of millions of dollars a year, and would have been a step toward allowing the market to determine how goods and services flow.
Food riots erupted in Cairo, Alexandria, and other parts of Egypt. Mr. Sadat relented.
Mr. Mubarak, in his policy address to parliament, made it clear he was not about to cut subsidies. The challenge, he said, was to make sure subsidized products really went to the people who need them.
''Look at this,'' exclaimed the old man at the cafe table, unfurling the next morning's edition of the state-controlled Gomhouria newspaper as midnight approached. ''It says the open-door policy will continue. . . .''
''What did the open door ever do for us?'' snapped a voice from the next table.
''Well, Mubarak says he will make sure it does more for us.''
Other heads nodded assent, approval. But the old man went on:
''Sadat said lots of things, too, of course. He said he would follow Nasser's line.''
''And then wiped it out, as with an eraser,'' a younger voice chimed in.
''Sadat said there would be prosperity in 1982.''
''In 1980, he said before.''''He was always changing.''
''Maybe, God willing, by the year 2000,'' said the older man, chuckling.
Will things really improve under Mr. Mubarak, a -foreigner asked.
''We must give him time,'' the man said. ''First he must take care of security . . . and get the Sinai back.''
''After that,'' he said quietly, pointing skyward and smiling, ''only Allah knows.''