One of Egypt's least savory but most durable industries, the narcotics business, is going modern.

Fast motor launches on the Mediterranean coast have supplanted camel caravans as the channel for imports of opium and harshish from Lebanon, Syria and Turkey.

Drug enforcement officials say Egypt's economic and political liberalization has opened a new front in the fitful but unending war against the habit - synthetic drugs, pep pills and barbiturates have begun flowing in.

Customs officials recently seized 1 1/2 metric tons of the synthetic drug quaalude in a single shipment at Cairo airport, but authorities admit they are having trouble controlling the traffic in synthetics.

"These are even more dangerous than the traditional drugs because they come in chic little bottles, in suitcases, and, even if they are stopped, people say it's for their personal use," said Ahmad Hadaa, chief of the narcotics bureau of ther Arab League. "It's getting worse ever day."

Egypt, by all accounts, does not have a drug problem" in the sense that the United States does. When the U.S. Drug Enforcement Adminstration's first resident agent takes up his post here this summer, he will find the nature of the problem and popular attitudes about it quite different from what they are in the West.

Heroin was virtually eliminated here 40 years ago. The addicted youth holding up the neighborhood grocery to finance his habit is almost unknown, the traditional water pipe of hashish and smokey opium den, while illegal, are often depicted with tolerance and films.

But the country stills pay a high price, which it can ill afford, in enforcement costs, lost manpower, petty crime and family disruption, for the national drug habit that experts see as both a symptom and a cause of other endemic problems.

"It's very dangerous for our economy," said Momdouth Salim Zaki, deputy director of Egypt's narcotics agency. "Money is smuggle out of the country. Laborers are not efficient. It leads to crime, to divorce, to child neglect."

Zaki works at a battered rolltop desk that once belonged to the legendary Sir Thomas Russell, still known here as Russell Pasha, the father of drug control and enforcement in modern Egypt.

Russell came here as a young English civil servant in 1902 and stayed for more than 40 years, waging a long fight against the drug habit he believed was destroying Egyptian society. His memoirs, written after his retirement as Cairo chief of police, are still the prime source of information about the efforts to control narcotics traffic in Egypt.

He wrote that drug abuse "has been a vice in egypt from time immorial," but "the drug that nearly killeld Egypt was heroin," Cultivation of the opium poppy, from which heroin is derived, was banned in 1926 and Russell introduced a primitive aerial surveillance to frustrate the attempts of the farmers to circumvent the ban. Bu smugglers prospered and by 1929, Russell said, "the peaceful happy villages were being roted by dope."

Strict enforcement eventually drove the price of heroin beyond reach and by World War ii it was almost unknown. But hashish has continued to come in, mostly from Lebanon, as has opium in lesser quantities, and studies have shown that there are users at every level of Egyptian society.

Russell believed that the peasants turned to drugs to overcome the physical debilitation caused by schistosomiasis which is endemic in rural Egypt.

"With his inside full of bloodsucking worms," he wrote, the peasants has lost a large amount of his labor capability and much of his virility . . .The natural result of this loss of bodily strength was the search for a stimulants to replace not only the wage-earning capacity lost but also the loss of sexual capacity which among primitive people is the man's standard of honor and esteem."

Similalrly, contemporary officials believe that social factors such as poverty, malnutritionM unemployment and desperate overcrowding are the causes of drug abuse in Egypt's cities.

"In our Moslem religion alcohol is banned and besides it's very expensive," Zaki said. "But everybody wants relief from life sometimes. And the drugs are a stimulant for energy. You can limit this problem but you can't finish it."

Police attribute the recent appearance of synthetic drugs here to the availability of convertible currencies and a more liberal policy on foreign travel.

Hashish is cheap and plentiful - a fact that police say accounts for thee low level of violence associated with its traffic heere. Control of the traffic is not worth fighting over they say.

THe availability statistics are inconclusive on whether drug use is spreading. Police figures show that in 1966 there were 8,546 persons arrested in drug cases, and only 3,811 in 1975. But the total quantity of hashish seized was almost the same as in the earlier year.

"Drug are not changing the society or destroying the society," an in something that's fashionable. It's just formed foreign observer said. "It's not traditional."