"You Americans were the people first in the area, and people looked to you with great hope. You were a great disappointment, the first superpower to be expelled from the area in 1967. This is the second marriage after the great divorce."
So says Muhammad Heikal, former editor-in-chief of the Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram and author of a history of the Soviet presence in Egypt, referring to the return of United States influence to the area.
But as US involvement in Egypt deepens, and Egyptian policy is more closely identified with US regional interests, American diplomats and military men are nagged by the thought that the second marriage, now in its honeymoon stage, could end in a second divorce.
A Soviet journalist is Cairo voiced what might happen.
"We helped the Egyptians, we gave them economic aid, we rebuilt their Army, and they expelled us in 1972," he remarked. "You'll see, the same thing will happen to you Americans."
Hence a new US effort to learn from past Soviet mistakes. A study has been arranged by the Pentagon in Washington to be conducted by American military historian Trevor Dupuy and the Al Ahram Center for Strategic Studies. It will examine the behavior of Soviet military specialists and advisers in Egypt in order to use the Russian experience as a lesson of do's and don'ts.
In the shifting sands of foreign affairs, however, often it is the elusive world of images rather than actual facts that count toward the success or failure of foreign assistance. Members of the Egyptian military, the object first of one superpower's affection and now the other's give some of their impressions.
"People in Egypt have two main characteristics," says a high- ranking Egyptian general who asked not to be identified. "They don't believe all that they hear, and they have their own personal censor. If the political command says the Soviets are our good friends, etc., . . . they are not completely convinced. We always heard from Nasser, and then Sadat, about our good friends who were helping us, the Soviets.
"We were thinking of how to assault the Suez Canal. We saw what was in the papers, and what was in our hands in equipment, and we felt the Soviets were not helping us.
"Most third-world people have an inferiority complex toward people coming from abroad," he continued. "When the Russians came it started the third-world phenomenon of suspicion. . . . The Russians did not succeed in finding out what was on the mind of young soldiers and officers."
When a superpower decides, for better or for worse, to become the mentor of a lesser power, it also becomes, in Egyptian eyes at any rate, responsible for the successes, failures, and disappointed expectations of that smaller country. Image again is at work.
"Where are the weapons?" asks an Egyptian military expert. Egypt has received no major arms shipments since the 1973 war, and is impatiently awaiting American replacements for its aging Soviet arsenal. "So far, we have had no land equipment in the armed forces. . . . People are comparing how the Russians sent equipment quickly and in abundance, while for the Americans it takes years."
"You Americans are making the same mistake the Russians made," says Mr. HEikal, who is critical of President Sadat's strong pro-american stance, "heavy-hand- edness. You treat this part of the world like a chess board.
"In any third-world country, don't deceive yourself by what you see on the surface. . . . Leave aside the blah-blah you hear in offices. . . . People care about economic standards, social standards, and their relations with the Arab world."