President Carter's renewed declaration that he opposes the creation of an independent Palestinian state came as a shock to Egypt and added to the anxiety that had already developed over this country's dangerously exposed position in Middle East peace negotiations.
If Carter comes here for talks, as White House officials say he may, he will find Egyptians, from clerks to generals, indignant and suspicious about the timing, if not the content of his remarks.
Many Egyptians were already uneasy over what is coming to be viewed as the failure of the Christmas summit conference between President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Sadat's insistence that there has been real progress towards peace, progress beyond anything imaginable two months ago, has failed to convicne even some high-ranking members of his own government.
These officials and other informed Egyptians were uncomfortable even before Carter spoke out because, as 1977 ends, all the old framework of Middle East diplomacy, centered on a unified Arab stance and a peace conference in Geneva, has been dismantled, and no one knows what will supplant it.
Professional diplomats, intellectuals and government officials, understood the old frame of reference, which was familiar if unproductive, and say they cannot now see where they are headed.
Mohammed Ibrahim Kamel, the new foreign minister, said he believes a peace agreement will be reached in the first half of 1978, but in private conversations Egyptians talk less and less of a quick breakthrough and more and more of long, difficult negotiations leading they know not where.
The Egyptians remember the American hesitation in responding to Sadat's invitation to a preparatory peace conference in Cairo, but they were reassured by later American declarations of full support for Sadat's innovative and highly personal initiave.
Their anxiety about the U.S. position was reawakened by Carter's statements on the Palestinian question, which were printed at length in the Cairo press today - along with Sadat's declaration that he was surprised and disappointed.
The views Carter expressed are not really much different, except in phrasing, from those of Sadat, who himself came up with the idea that any Palestinian state must be constitutionally linked with Jordan. But the Egyptinas were exasperated by Carter's timing, because they have been trying to build a case for U.S. pressure on Israel to be more flexible on the West Bank question.
A key member of the Egyptian team involved in negotiating with the Israelis "just threw up his hands when he heard about it," a close friend of his reported. "He said it amounted to American pressure on Egypt instead of on Israel."
It was learned from reliable sources that high-ranking Egyptian military officers complained to their diplomatic contacts that they felt that "Carter is pulling the rug out from under Sadat," as one source put it.
Sadat's own statements in a television interview last night, in which he said Carter's words would delay a settlement and make negotiation more difficult, were apparently his first public critcism of an American president since diplomatic relations between Egypt and the United States were restored in 1974 - and indication of how seriously he viewed Carter's words.
Sophiscated Egyptians understand that their letdown after the failure of the Ismalia summit meeting to produce an overall peace agreement and their fear that Sadat may have given too much in exchange for too little is, to a great extent, the result of unrealistic expectations.
According to authoritative sources, Sadat himself fell victim to this. Several days before Begin brought his peace proposals to Egypt, these sources said, Sadat was informed of them in detail. Nevertheless, Sadat believed, and led his countrymen to believe, that in the dramatic Christmans setting in front of the world press the Israeli leader would come up with something more. When that did not happen, the letdown began, and with it the anxiety that has replaced the assurance with which Etgypt went into this process.
"What's happening is we've reached the end of media diplomacy and entered the time of real diplomacy," a senior official said.
This diplomatic effort is likely to take place on several fronts, according to Egyptian sources. In addition to the direct negotiations with Israel that are to resume in mid-January in Jerusalem and Cairo, Sadat has already begun sending messages to other heads of state, from Britain to Djibouti, explaining his position and asking their support.
Egypt is also expected to make a new effort to bring President Hafez Assad of Syria, if not into the negotiations with Israel, at least into a posture with Israel, at least into a posture of being willing to wait and see instead of criticizing Sadat and siding with the Soviet Union.
Egypt would like King Hussein of Jordan to participate in the negotiations, but officials here say that only the Israels have the power to bring that about.
In the Egyptian view, Hussein, who was formally stripped of his claim to the West Bank by an Arab summit conference in 1974, will probably not risk denying that decision unless he thinks it possible that the Israelis will give him enough real concessions on the West Bank to justify his action.
"The king won't do it just for the right to stamp a few passports," one Egyptian source said.
The collective euphoria about peace that prevailed here before Christmas has now been dissipated. The banners that festooned all downtown Cairo hailing Sadat and asking for peace are gradually being taken down. Sadat is trying to maintain the impression that things are still moving quickly, but the time when Cairo hotels were looking ahead to the arrival of Israeli tourists has passed.
According to informed Egyptian offficials, Egyptian negotiators are going into the January meetings with a detailed counter offer to the Begin proposals and with a line of negotiations based on what they see as a logical sequence - if Israel is at peace with Egypt, then Israel faces no credible threat on any other border, and therefore Israel should not be afraid of withdrawing from the West Bank.
Yet, there is open skepticism about whether it will work. "If you are talking about a comprehensive settlement. it is just not in sight," a senior official said.