PRESIDENT SADAT seems to have weathered Egypt's worst riots since independence, but he has paid a price. He has been revealed as unable to tend adequately to the basic needs of his country's impoverished millions. Moreover, the riots, triggered by food-price increases he ordered to satisfy his international creditors, resulted in cancellation of the increases and, in turn, in making it even more difficult to come by new credits. Bandaids are being applied. One is the $190 million in emergency aid now being processed through Congress; it is in the form of funds transferred from the development account to immediate commodity shipments. More aid from other sources is being hurriedly rounded up. But the economic wound remains. So does the need to treat the problems of corruption and bureaucracy which salt it.

Even in peace, no doubt, Egypt would be a very poor country. But it happens to be spending a third of its budget preparing for war. The danger of the riots, aside from the human stress and the political instability they betoken, is that they will weight the tendency which exists in any similarly beleaguered country to turn toward war as a distraction from misery at home. But the riots have a promise, too: to make more evident to Egyptians the need for peace, rather as the cold spell has made more evident to Americans the need for an energy policy.

The Carter administration can do more than make the political gesture of approving emergency aid for Cairo. It can use Egypt's new exposure to its own priorities to press forward an American initiative for reopening negotiations between the Arabs and Israel. This means making it plain to Cairo just what Egyptian "peace offensive" of recent months, mounted by way of welcoming Jimmy Carter to the White House, has emphasized Egypt's readiness to sign a "peace treaty" as soon as Washington squeezes Israel back into the 1967 borders. But of course this ignores the need for Egypt to enter into the normal neighborly relations that demonstrate its political capacity to live with a comprehensive Mideast settlement.

In every Arab upheaval, some Israelis find ammunition for the contention that Arabs are too unstable to be trusted in a settlement. But what they should be concluding is that unless peace is earnestly sought, the upheavals will continue, prolonging the ever more onerous and dangerous conditions of the status quo and perhaps producing another war. It is only the most short-sighted Israelis, grasping for pretexts to avoid inevitable decisions, and the most militant Palestinians, hoping for the collapse of Arab moderates, who take satisfaction from Egypt's travail.