Three months after inheriting the Egyptian presidency from the assassinated Anwar Sadat, Hosni Mubarak presents the image of a thoughtful, low-key head of state -- yet one prepared to act decisively once he has made up his mind.
His immediate aim is to develop and strengthen a national consensus in support of his policies. These, to date, are in broad outline the ones that the late President Sadat set for himself from the late 1970s onward.
An Egyptian official with some insight into the working of government under the new President said Mubarak's watchwords are ''continuity and stability, with avoidance of change simply for the sake of change.''
So far, Mr. Mubarak's initiatives have been on the domestic front. On the international front, he may have resorted to less rhetoric and been less scathing about Egypt's Arab critics than his predecessor. But he has deliberately and firmly adhered to the two most distinctive features of the Sadat foreign policy: association with the West, and reconciliation with Israel.
Mr. Mubarak will be visiting Washington the first week in February, stopping in both France and West Germany before he returns to Cairo. (US Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. will be in Cairo next week, part of a quick swing through Egypt and Israel.)
In mid-February, Mr. Mubarak himself will be visiting Israel. From the Israeli point of view, he has ''passed the test'' by not allowing himself to be diverted from the peace process by Israel's virtual annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights.
In return, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin appears to be sticking to his commitment to complete Israeli withdrawal from the last swath of occupied Sinai. The Israeli Cabinet shows no sign of giving in to the Jewish settlers in the town of Yamit who want to block that withdrawal in April.
On the domestic front, the two most distinctive features of the Sadat policy were: the open door for domestic and foreign investment, in contrast to the state-controlled ''socialism'' of the Nasser era, and democratization of the political system.
But by the time of Mr. Sadat's murder last October, application of these two policies had turned rancid and provoked a groundswell of opposition. Under the open-door policy, corruption had increased, the rich were getting richer, the poor poorer, and consumption rather than production was mounting.
As for democratization, Mr. Sadat's sweeping crackdown against religious fundamentalists and other critics in September revived memories of the harsher authoritarian aspects of the Nasser years.
Mr. Mubarak has acted with decisiveness to try to restore the good name of both the open-door and democratization policies.
At the outset of his presidency, he ordered investigations sped up to determine if there were indeed valid grounds for the continued detention of some 1,600 or so people arrested in Mr. Sadat's crackdown. In late November, 31 people -- including the prominent journalist Muhammad Hassanein Heikal -- were released and immediately received by Mr. Mubarak in a gesture of conciliation.
On Dec. 26, 39 others were freed. Significantly these included the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Omar Tilmessani, and the editor of that organization's now-banned magazine, al-Dawa. At the same time, it was made known that fundamentalists ''suspected of being dangerous or instigating sectarian strife'' would remain in detention. Indeed, Mr. Mubarak has had more fundamentalists arrested since the Sadat assassination. But the release of the septuagenarian Mr. Tilmessani suggests that the authorities are persuaded that the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's oldest Muslim fundamentalist organization, was not involved with the younger Muslim militants charged with murdering Mr. Sadat.
The Cabinet changes announced Jan. 4 suggest that Mr. Mubarak's most immediate concern is the economy, since the new appointments are concentrated in that field. There were no changes in the key posts dealing with foreign affairs and defense.
The economic team inherited from the late President Sadat has been replaced by a new group under Muhammad Abdul Fattah Ibrahim, hitherto governor of Cairo's central bank.
Mr. Ibrahim is not only deputy prime minister for economic affairs but also minister for investment and international cooperation. Serving under him will be three new ministers responsible for economy, finance, and planning. All three are university professors. Academics and technocrats fill many of the other posts in the Cabinet.
The new economic team has been charged with eliminating corruption. It also has to recommend those changes needed to ensure that: production rather than consumption flourishes, the circle of beneficiaries of the government's economic policies is widened beyond the entrepreneur class, and that more jobs become available for the unemployed.
Working in tandem with the Cabinet economic team is a group outside the government under the leadership of a distinguished Egyptian economist with international civil-servant experience, Helmy Abdul Rahman. Available to them is the counsel of Egypt's most respected financial and economic specialists who have served in government for at least two decades.