It is tempting to see Cairo through the eyes of author V. S. Naipaul: noise, heat, anarchic traffic. Pharaoh, king, revolution, Pharaoh. Nullity creating nullity, a cycle of stagnation. But the view would be wrong.
Deep and powerful social currents flow underneath the placid surface. There are three main rival models confronting Egyptian society: the recent socialist past, marked by austerity and shortages and refracted by the charisma of Nasser; the more recent past of Sadat and his open-door policies, implying capitalist moral laxity; and the growing assertiveness of an Islamic presence.
It is the Islamic movement which now dominates analysis of Cairo. President Sadat's assassination is seen as an act of vengeance by young Muslims against the humiliation of jail and abuse. Mrs. Sadat's public life outraged Muslim public opinion. Her being kissed by President Carter on TV was the last straw.
President Mubarak's wife is invisible. A high percentage of girls today wear a distinct headdress and clothes seen as Islamic. These women, whether medical students or at the American University in Cairo, have voluntarily given up skirts, beaches, and discos. In conversation and behavior there is a quiet dignity about them.
Islamic revivalism is a generalized response to the failure of materialism, both the Nasser and Sadat varieties. Egyptians groped for more permanent answers than Nasser could provide. They fell back to religion somewhat neglected under the rhetoric of Nasser's Pan-Arabism and socialism.
Sadat's achievements were real. A peace that held and a new surge of economic prosperity.
But Sadat appeared to condone corruption. His visit to Jerusalem and ostracism in the Arab world further narrowed his support. Greedy for publicity he was reduced to a thing of Barbara Walters, a creation of the Western media, believing in its myths.
In an extreme act, typical of him, he jailed not only the Islamic groups but all opposition. He was reacting to mounting criticism not to Islam, for he remained a devout Muslim. A few weeks later he was assassinated.
Today, signs of ''Ya Rab'' (O God) or ''Allah ho Akbar (God is great) are everywhere. On gates, kiosks, taxis. These are not necessarily new signs. But non-Muslims uneasy with the Islamic mood are seeing them for the first time.
Recently a British television documentary, ''Why was Cairo calm?'' discussed the reasons for the calm after Sadat's murder. In Cairo I talked to one of the commentators, an Egyptian sociologist. From prison interviews he had interesting statistics regarding the Islamic groups jailed for Sadat's slaying. Their members were not socially marginal, economically dispossessed, or psychologically unbalanced. Most of them were ''the cream and backbone of society, doctors and engineers.'' The opponents of Islam could not wish them away; they were here to stay and would be heard.
But Egypt's problems are not only ideological. Population, disease, and poverty confront planners. Today, Cairo is splitting at the seams with a population of about 12 million, making it the largest Muslim city in the world. The grinding poverty is made the more poignant for a highly gifted people with a rich past having to live on international doles.
Is Cairo calm? No. It is struggling with itself and its destiny. And the outcome will shape not only Egypt but the entire region.