How much American presence can Egypt tolerate? The test to determine the answer is under way. In the short term, the test is what, if any, American military forces and/or equipment will be stationed on Egyptian soil. In the long run, even if Egypt refuses the United States a base, the test will be what sort of impression the burgeoning numbers of US officials, tourists, businessmen, and in some cases, hucksters, leave with the Egyptians.
The focus of Reagan administration strategic attention now is on the Ras Banas peninsula, which pokes out of central Egypt into the Red Sea, commanding the southern approaches to the Suez Canal and the Gulf of Aqaba. But even more important at a time of Western world dependence on Saudi Arabian oil, Ras Banas is situated not far northwest of the Saudi diplomatic capital of Jiddah and the holy city of Mecca, scene last year of rebel insurgency.
Egyptian and American officials agree that Ras Banas is the perfect spot for a major military facility to shore up regional security. But that is all that the allies since the mid- 1970s agree on in this matter.
The Reagan administration would like a US base there, or at least a load of military hardware kept tuned and polished by a crew of US technicians for possible Rapid Deployment Force use. The US Army Corps of Engineers is examining the site and preparing cost estimates.
But Egyptian officials say neither American soldiers nor technicians could possibly be stationed in Egypt -- for reasons of political stability. What Egypt would like instead, government officials say, is American money to upgrade Egyptian military facilities at Ras Banas. Then in a crisis the US could dash in at the request of Egypt or another imperiled Arab state.
So sensitive is the issue that Egypt refuses even to sign an agreement, requested by congressional appropriation authorities, that the US-financed airfields, storage depots, and docks would be available to the US in an emergency.
"They say, and rightly, that an agreement is only as good as the willingness of the host government to honor it," a Western diplomatic source says. "Nonalignment and the absence of foreign troops from Egypt is very, very important to them."
Reflecting pressure already felt for allowing US forces to hold training exercises in Egypt (although with overall Egyptian command), Lt. Gen. Ahmad Badawi, the defense and military production minister, late last year assured his countrymen: "US military experts leave the country as soon as their missions are completed. Their number cannot be compared to the 17,000 to 18,000 Soviets who enjoyed permanent residence in Egypt before 1973."
Egyptian officials say they are not willing to create a public perception of returning to the days prior to 1956, when 74 years of British occupation ended -- or before 1973, when President Anwar Sadat expelled the Soviets. An American military presence, however small, would focus charges by Mr. Sadat's opposition in Egypt and elsewhere that he had bargained away the country's hard-won independence.
Moreover, as a co-founder of the nonaligned movement, Egypt's membership could be revoked if foreign troops were stationed within its borders with its consent.
"Egypt has made it crystal clear that it cannot tolerate from the Americans what the Soviets and British did," says a Western resident. (He adds that a US base in Israel would be a "nonstarter," since "no Arab country would dare ask for our help if we staged out of Israel.")
Already some Cairene eyebrows are raised by the fact that the US Embassy in Cairo is among the largest American diplomatic posts in the world. One Egyptian perceptive about the social scene complains that he has seen frauds and ill-mannered "cowboys" among the growing American expatriate community.
"The people see this," he says. "If things continue this way we could have a real reaction in four or five years -- if you have soldiers here, maybe earlier."
A Western academician who has lived in Egypt for 20 years says it is very important that Americans not "overexpose" their presence in Egypt and that they remain sensitive to Egyptian nationalism.
"So far these problems have been limited and isolated," he said. "But America is in the driver's seat in the Middle East now, and it is a time for great sophistication. The onus not to exacerbate resentment is on the foreigner , not the local society."