EGYPT, ancient and modern, has only recently swum into the mainstream of American consciousness. Specialists aside, most Americans seemed to peer at the world's oldest nation-state through Israeli-tinted lenses and saw the Egypt of Gamal Abdul Nasser and Anwar Sadat as a vain, strutting bully-boy, full of windy rhetoric, but still the most powerful and threatening country in the Arab phalanx against Israel.

However, the 1973 war, Sadat's dramatic journey to Jerusalem, and finally the Camp David accords which led to peace between Egypt and Israel changed all that. Today, Egypt is the largest recipient of U.S. economic and military aid after Israel, a vital link in the chain of alliances for the Rapid Deployment Force--the abortive raid to release the American hostages in Iran was directed from Egyptain soil--and a pivotal ally in the Horn and North Africa.

As the two books under review show--one by a former Egyptian foreign minister and the other by a respected American Middle East scholar--Egypt is not an easy country to understand, nor is its current dependency on the United States or its continuing isolation in the Arab world without grave dangers for the stability of the region. The books are not, surprisingly, very different in their approach, content, and style; yet, as with two spotlights aimed from opposing angles, they throw shafts of interlocking light onto a crowded stage.

Ismail Fahmy, an Egyptian career diplomat, became Sadat's chief foreign adviser shortly before the 1973 war and played a major role in Egyptian diplomacy until he resigned in protest over Sadat's decision to go to Jerusalem in November 1977. Negotiating for Peace in the Middle East is essentially a personal memoir triggered, Fahmy writes, "by the incorrect versions of events presented in books such as Ezer Weizman's Battle for Peace, Moshe Dayan's Breakthrough . . . and above all Sadat's own In Search of Identity."

Fahmy's claim to the inside track on Sadat's decision to abandon the multilayered international diplomacy painstakingly conducted by his officials and go off to Jerusalem to address the Israeli Knesset in November, 1977, is borne out in enthralling detail. The aim of that diplomacy was the convening of a peace conference in Geneva bringing together all the major parties in the Arab-Israeli dispute, including the Palestinians, under the co-chairmanship of the United States and the Soviet Union.

Fahmy considered the chances of success at Geneva to be good, a view apparently not shared by his president. The first inkling he had that Sadat had other plans came during a trip to Romania when Sadat, dressed in pajamas and slippers, broached the idea the evening of their arrival. Fahmy was at first taken aback, then, when it became clear Sadat had no secret assurances of Israeli concessions or indeed a coherent strategy of any kind, he was appalled. During the rest of the trip Sadat seemed to have abandoned the idea, but back in Cairo he ignored both his civilian and military advisers and went ahead with what he later called his "sacred mission."

"The decision to go to Jerusalem," Fahmy writes, "was not taken because Egypt was in a desperate position. It was not taken on the basis of a sound assessment of the impact of the gesture. It was not taken to retrieve an otherwise lost Sinai. . . . Sadat knew the Israelis would try and use him but he thought he was clever enough to manipulate the whole situation to his own advantage."

Fahmy concludes that Sadat, pursuing "his huge ambition to be a major actor on the international scene" and with a "weakness for the grand geste," led him into abandoning a promising pan-Arab rategy for an overall peace settlement, into ditching the Palestinians at one of the rare moments when an American president (Carter) was ready to consider their case seriously (at the still-born Geneva conference), and into signing a separate peace with Israel leaving Egypt dangerously isolated in the Arab world. Israel, Fahmy stresses, never wanted to deal with all its Arab enemies at once, so Sadat played straight into its hands by striking out on his own.

All this is true, although how promising the prospects for an overall peace were at Geneva remains highly debatable. But, like many of the Egyptian intelligentsia, Fahmy underestimates his own compatriots' war weariness, the desire to retrieve Sinai regardless of the consequences, and the impact the Jerusalem initiative had on the Israelis. Sadat was more in tune with the Egyptian masses--though he wasn't particularly loved--than with Fahmy and his colleagues, although it did not prevent him from paying the ultimate price for straying from pan-Arab orthodoxy on an issue that continues to transcend national boundaries and domestic priorities.

While Fahmy's book also fitfully illuminates the Egyptian policy-making process (there is much fascinating detail wedged in between unnecessary repetition and some suspicious mingling of foresight and hindsight), John Waterbury's rich, dense, scholarly work, The Egypt of Nasser and Sadat: The Political Economy of Two Regimes, turns the steady penetrating light of many years' thoughtful research into the arcane recesses of the Egyptian system.

The book is well-timed. The death of Sadat has effectively closed the "Free Officers' " revolutionary era. Sadat's successor, Hosni Mubarak, is both temperamentally and generationally a different man from his high- flying predecessors. "Egyptians may get what most want," Waterbury writes, but "like Nasser and Sadat, Mubarak will have little choice but to worry above all about his survival, and again like them he may come to equate his survival to the national good."

None of Waterbury's conclusions is particularly startling, but he covers his ground thoroughly, much helped by six years' residence in Eygpt. He convincingly chronicles the failure of Nasser's socialist experiment, discounting the theory that class obstacles thwarted Nasser. He argues that the rural bourgeoisie "can best be seen as a class fraction (sic) subordinate to the state bourgeoisie and its predominantly urban private sector allies." He makes interesting comparisons between Egypt's relations with the Soviet Union and the United States, concluding that "Egypt's dependence on the great powers has allowed it to extract tribute from both." But he warns that "corporate containment, public subsidies, and inefficient state capitalism cannot be expected to paper over the stark realities of limited resources and a growing population."

Summing up, Fahmy's account is essential reading for anyone interested in contemporary Egypt, although it should be noted it is a work of advocacy as well as record. Waterbury's book should--and undoubtedly will --be closely studied by scholars. However, it is also of value to the general reader who, while gliding over its theoretical debates, models, and paradigms so beloved by political scientists, can still learn much from Waterbury's facts, his political insights, and his clear conclusions.