CAIRO -- Not a word has been printed in the newspapers or heard over the airwaves here about Egypt's role as principal base area for the ''flow through'' of U.S. forces on their way to Saudi Arabia.

This shows the concern in Egypt that underlies surface excitement, even exhilaration -- particularly in the military -- over President Hosni Mubarak's policy: to lead as much of the Arab world as possible into joining the American crusade against Saddam Hussein of Iraq.

For Mubarak, the stakes are enormous to wind up this operation fast. That explains growing support for a quick-as-possible U.S. air attack against Iraq. To topple Hussein is regarded here as President Bush's true objective. ''If Saddam does not provoke retaliation,'' a key Egyptian policy maker told us, ''you must invent an incident. That's easy for a superpower.''

When Egyptian strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal on July 23, 1956, it took 37 days before Britain, France and Israel attacked Egypt. Authorities here say time has been so compressed by technology that Bush's retaliation must come quicker. Leaving aside the chilling memory of Suez and the quick political demise of British Prime Minister Anthony Eden, the consensus here is that the United States should strike within three weeks and complete action within seven days.

Delays invite disaster, say Egyptian officials who are offered the narrow glimpse of Bush's strategy that Washington is willing to expose. Agreeing, a Western diplomat said privately: ''The greatest risk is that we give Saddam time to exploit his case that the United States is the anti-Arab bad guy interested only in Israel and oil.''

Mubarak's closest aides and advisers agree. They say Saddam's blaring trumpet of Arab nationalism against ''foreigners'' could build strong support. ''It is very dangerous,'' Foreign Minister Abdel Meguid told us.

So is the considerable economic cost that Egypt must now accept, quite apart from the initial 5,000 troops it has promised to the crusade to defend the Saudi kingdom's oil fields and eliminate Saddam as an Arab leader. The overall loss includes $2.5 billion in remittances from Egyptian workers in Kuwait and Iraq, a drop in Suez Canal transit fees caused by the oil embargo and a decline in the $1.5 billion tourist trade, always cooled by crisis.

The government's concealment of Egypt's crucial role in moving U.S. forces from America into Saudi Arabia -- the ''flow through'' -- makes sense. Politicians here, doubting that a ground war has any part in Bush's strategy, naturally do not want to publicize the movement of troops to the Saudi desert.

''Ground is all symbolic,'' an intimate aide of Mubarak told us. ''It is the cover for the United States to show that it has Arab help.'' The decisive action, he said, will be ''aerial attack'' -- handled entirely by the United States.

Saddam's initiatives to counter this strategy are seen here as plentiful, starting with a sit-tight policy in which he denies the United States any new provocation. That is another reason for Egypt's hope that U.S. air attacks will come quickly -- with or without provocation -- to avoid the appearance of stalemate.

The more time Saddam has to move forces to the Saudi border, the greater his opportunity to attack American-led troops in depth along that border. But he would do this only after the U.S. Air Force bombs and burns his military and industrial heartland. Thus, specialists here see time as Saddam's ally: the longer he has to put troops in attacking position on the Saudi border, the more Americans he can kill after the war starts with U.S. aerial attacks. Mubarak's men do not believe Bush will permit this.

If U.S. strategy, as seen here, is successful -- swift surgical air strikes that break Saddam -- Egypt will emerge greatly strengthened. Its position as the leading Arab state will be improved and its claim to U.S. beneficence fortified. That could give Mubarak a new high card in getting the United States to compel Israel to do what the United States is demanding of Iraq in Kuwait: get out of the West Bank, Syria's Golan Heights, southern Lebanon and Gaza.

The serenely flowing Nile makes optimists of most Egyptians. But among them are realists who talk privately of woeful U.S. efforts to get rid of Castro, Ortega, Khomeini and Ho Chi Minh. Each of these posed a problem vastly different from that laid on the White House doorstep by Saddam Hussein, except for one common characteristic: each was unique and thus had to be managed by new, untested methods blending domestic politics, military capability and the adversary's unmeasurable resources.

''No one here expects it,'' a Mubarak insider told us, ''but these failures in the recent past suggest the possibility of failure against Saddam Hussein.'' That thought is cause for nervousness in Cairo.