"When you're dealing with the Middle East, a clock is always ticking somewhere," says an American veteran of the many peace efforts. "The problem is that not everybody is working to the same clock."

Such was the case for the best part of the last two years, when negotiations ground almost to a halt on that part of Camp David having to do with "autonomy" for the Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza. First the United States, in 1980, and then Israel, last year, were working to electoral clocks. And such is the case right now, as time runs down on the April 25 deadline for withdrawal of Israel's remaining occupation forces from Sinai.

All of a sudden, the United States is forcing the pace, with two visits to the scene by Secretary of State Alexander Haig in as many weeks, breathing a "greater sense of urgency," promising "an active U.S. role," hoping for "agreements in principle" before the clock runs out. Israel should be more eager to bargain while it still has its Sinai foothold, the theory goes; Egypt will be in less of a hurry, once it has its territory back.

It makes sense, until you talk to Egyptians in and out of government and discover that, for reasons largely unrelated to the Sinai timetable, Egypt is working to its own quite different clock. In the aftermath of the assassination of Anwar Sadat, the first order of business had to be internal security. Next came the crackdown on corruption, a closing of the Sadat "open door" policy for foreign investment and an end to the too-free enterprise that made millionaires overnight.

Now comes, with a Cabinet reshuffling, a heavy concentration on Egypt's crushing economic problems by President Hosni Mubarak's government. And what of foreign policy--Camp David, relations with the United States, Egypt's almost total isolation from the Arab world, the noisy vendetta provoked by Sadat with Col. Muammar Qaddafi in neighboring Libya and all the rest?

All in due time is the answer, collectively, from influential Egyptians. "We have no foreign policy problems," says one. "We've declared a moratorium on foreign policy," says another. "We are really groping around for openings," says a third. "Sadat slammed a lot of doors."

What all three are trying to portray is not just an inward-turning to domestic priorities, and still less any quick and drastic shifts. Mubarak will hold his reassurances of "continuity" in foreign policy in specific terms.

But it would be a mistake to misread the absence of new, bold breaks with the past as a sign that nothing of consequence is going on. On the contrary, you get a strong sense that Mubarak and his associates are methodically studying the charts, taking bearings and reducing speed in the manner of a heavily freighted vessel preparing for a long, slow change of course.

The destination is clear, even if the route remains obscure. Post-Sadat Egypt is determined to recover its lost leadership in the Arab World, and in other "worlds" as well: the African "circle" that the revolutionary government of its first president, Gamal Abdal Nasser, used to speak of; the "world" of the non-aligned; Islam. It is all a little fuzzy now, even in the minds of those who regard it as an imperative that Egypt, as one close Mubarak adviser puts it, "rediscover its natural constituency."

But there are certain things that are not likely to happen. There will not be a quick rush, after the recovery of the Sinai land, to "rejoin" the alienated Arab world, a notion that gets short shrift from prominent Egyptians. "It is up to the Arab World to rejoin us," says a top foreign policy maker, noting that it was, after all, the decision of the rest of the Arabs to break with Egypt after Camp David.

There will, as well, be little softening of Egypt's terms for a Palestinian settlement, and also no slackening of Egypt's interest in securing for the Palestinians their "rights."

It also means an effort by Mubarak to work Egypt into the forefront of any pan- Arab alternative to Camp David if the Israelis stick to their intransigence on the "autonomy" formula. How else could Egypt lay valid claim to the leadership role it sees for itself in the Arab world?

Finally, it means an Egypt moving slowly, to its own clock, in a way that promises to alter, if not necessarily to weaken, the close--most Egyptians would now say too close--Egyptian relationship forged so engagingly with the United States by Anwar Sadat.