Mustafa Amin, one of Egypt's most prominent journalists, has been going to his office at the country's biggest daily newspaper as usual this week, but he is not very busy because the paper has been ordered not to print his columns.

Although no official announcement has been made, Amin has been silenced because he wrote a political column that displeased President Anwar Sadat. This latest round in Sadat's attempt to control the press while proclaiming its freedom came as a surprise to the intellectual community and has embarrassed some officials who are concerned about Egypt's image abroad.

Through much of the last three years, Sadat - a former journalists himself - and the Egyptian press have sparred as the newspapers tested the meaning of his statement that the press is free but must not abuse its freedom or act irresponsibly.

In general, the formula seems to be that there will be swift retribution for criticism of Sadat or his close associates for suggestions that the country was better off under his predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser, or for anything that could be construed as supporting the policies of the Soviet Union.

The leftist newspaper Al Ahali, a pugnacious weekly that delights in just such topics, has been seized by the police more often than not, which perhaps accounts for the fact that it is much in demand.

It was Al Ahali that referred to Sadat's closest friend, millionaire contractor Osman Ahmad Osman, by the Turkish version of his name - "Ottoman" - in a slashing attack on the "Amoral and power-hungary families trying to reimpose capitalism on the nation."

Al Ahali also reported the torture of political prisoners in Alexandria, defended Soviet policies in Africa, denounced the semi-official big dailies as tools of the government, and suggested that Sadat had rewritten history by claiming in his autobiography that he was an early leader of the officers who helped Nassar overthrow the monarchy in 1952, when actually he was a latecomer.

As a result, Al Ahali, which is published by the officially sanctioned Leftist Party, has all but disappeared in a succession of police seizures.

Mustafa Amin hardly fits into the same category. Although he is often forthright and critical, he does not represent the opposition press.His daily column, "An Idea," has been appearing in Al Akhbar, which is routinely progovernment and is edited by one of Sadat's most vehement supporters.

Amin himself at 64 is widely admired and respected, often described as the "spiritual father" of Egyptian journalists.

With his late brother, Ali, he founded Al Akhbar in 1952, and he was its chief editor for a decade. He ran afoul of Nasser, however, and was imprisoned until Sadat released him in 1974.

Two weeks ago he caused a stir with a denunciation of the "ravenous contractors and thieving bureaucrats" who were taking advantage of the country's housing crisis. Then last week he apparently went too far.

He criticized the members of the People's Assembly, or parliament, who rushed to join Sadat's new political party without waiting to find out what its platform was or clearing their action with their constituents.

The reaction was swift. Sadat complained publicly about the article the next morning, and Amin's column disappeared from Al Akhbar without explanation.

Amin said through an aide yesterday that he could not meet any foreign journalists or discuss his situation with them, and that he would make no statement.

From a man as gregarious as he, that was an indication of the delicacy of his position. Other prominent journalists who displeased Sadat, including former Information Minister Mohammed Hassanein Heikai, have been prohibited from leaving Egypt and threatened with prosecution.

The press here still has more latitude than in many other Arab countries. What Egyptians seem to fear is that the scope for criticism is growing narrower, not broader.

"It is still an authoritarian system," when you have that, you get something like this move against Amin whenever the leader has a nervous reaction."