After more than three years at the helm of Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak has succeeded in restoring stability to a society traumatized by the assassination of Anwar Sadat, but he has failed to project any overall vision of the country's future or a strategy for dealing with its gargantuan problems.

The Egyptian leader has made a cautious, slow-motion approach his hallmark, reminiscent to some critics of a rudderless ship of state.

Early in March, Mubarak will make his fifth trip to Washington, this time in search of an increase of close to $1 billion in U.S. aid -- on top of the present $2.2 billion -- and in quest of a new activism by the Reagan administration to revive the dying Middle East peace process.

If Mubarak is still something of an enigma for Washington, the same is true for his own country and for western analysts here. The honeymoon he enjoyed after Sadat's death is clearly over, but the Egyptian public has yet to pass judgment on him.

Meanwhile, Egypt's social and economic problems are beginning to close in on him, and the time for hard choices, which he deftly has put off, is near.

Under Mubarak, Egypt has been noticeably outside the international limelight. This four-part series of articles is a journey into contemporary Egypt -- an attempt to explain how it is being ruled today, what has happened under Mubarak's stewardship at home and abroad and the dilemmas he faces in dealing with a populace in social upheaval. From the very start of Mubarak's administration, security has been a central factor in all decisions here and probably the root of his caution. It is now becoming even more important as the threat of Libyan subversion looms larger and the Moslem fundamentalists once again become more active.

"He is obsessed with security," a leading Egyptian political commentator said of Mubarak, adding, "and he is overly cautious."

Neither beloved nor disliked by his people, Mubarak, at 56, has yet to make his own mark on Egyptian politics. His instinct to seek the middle path and avoid controversy makes it difficult to determine who he really is or what he wants for his nation, other than broad goals of stability, prosperity and peace.

He has tried to cast himself as the "great reconciler" of Egypt, seeking to appease both Islamic and Christian militants, maintain the country's twin commitments to the socialist and capitalist sectors, rehabilitate former presidents Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser, reestablish normal relations with Moscow while keeping on good terms with Washington and reintegrate Egypt into the Arab orbit while still adhering to the peace treaty with Israel.

"Egypt's foreign policy under Mubarak is a search for balance," in the view of Ali Dissouki, a political science professor at Cairo University. "It is low-profile, cautious and an attempt to strike a middle road and build a consensus around it." The same can be said of Mubarak's domestic policy.

The result of this complicated balancing act, however, is that it is often difficult to see in which direction Mubarak is taking Egypt.

What's more, Mubarak is not a great communicator -- as President Reagan has been dubbed because of his persuasive abilities in talking to the nation. For example, when asked what he thought of Yasser Arafat's visit here in December 1983, a long-awaited event with much political significance for both Egypt and the Palestinians, Mubarak replied cryptically:

"Egypt is Egypt."

Nor is Mubarak credited with breadth of vision, and the popular jokes in circulation -- a traditional indicator of public attitudes in the absence of polls here -- do not flatter his intelligence or political acumen.

At the center of Mubarak's political problem, from the start, has been the absence of a personal power base.

As hero of the Egyptian Air Force in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, he was selected by Sadat as his vice president, remained a silent understudy in Sadat's shadow and was suddenly propelled into the presidency upon Sadat's assassination in October 1981.

Unlike Sadat, he had neither the legitimacy of being a "founding father" of the 1952 revolution; a base in the Army, the main branch of the Egyptian armed forces, nor a flair for politics. In the words of Mohammed Heikal, a journalist and Nasser's longtime confidant, "He is the only technocrat-president that we have had."

"His experience is that of a pilot," used to depending on indicators and gauges to guide him, Heikal added. "The trouble with politics is that you sometimes should react to indicators that have no hands. You have to react to abstractions and public opinion."

Heikal, who was sharply critical of Sadat, gave Mubarak high marks for his first six months in power, in defusing the sectarian and political tensions that had brought Egypt to the boiling point. But he said that he feels Mubarak has since missed many opportunities to establish himself as a true leader and is still moving too slowly, a view shared by many Egyptians and western diplomats.

Was he, then, the right man for the time in Egypt?

"More or less," Heikal conceded. "Egypt wanted a man to put some ice on its head to lower the temperature, and I think he did that very well."

In retrospect, it now appears that Mubarak missed an opportunity in May to establish both his popularity and legitimacy by his handling of elections for the People's Assembly. Instead of emerging as the standard bearer of a "new democracy," Mubarak came out of them looking like another Sadat -- who regularly won his referendums with 99.9 percent votes.

After insisting on what was probably the most free electoral campaign since the 1952 revolution, Mubarak inexplicably allowed his then-prime minister, Fuad Mohieddin, to mobilize the country's massive bureaucracy to produce a crushing victory for the ruling National Democratic Party. It won 85 percent of the vote and all but 58 of the 448 elected seats.

This tactic, plus an electoral law that clearly favored the ruling party, kept all the leftist parties out and allowed only the revived Wafd Party, which dominated Egyptian politics before the 1952 revolution, to get a foothold in the assembly.

The elections bitterly disappointed Egypt's restless intelligentsia and crushed its hopes for the birth of full democracy here. They raised questions about Mubarak's ability to control his own prime minister and government that still have not been answered.

"With all due respect, Mubarak is a sincere and honest man being misled by people in the government," said Mumtaz Nassar, leader of the Wafd opposition bloc in parliament. "He has good intentions and I'm sure he wants democracy, but if the rules remain the same, there can be no democracy in Egypt."

A typical reaction of the left was that of Mohammed Sid Ahmed, a member of the Progressive Unionist Party and a prominent political commentator, who had held high hopes for democracy here before the elections.

"The Mubarak era has missed its takeoff," he wrote in the French monthly Le Monde Diplomatique.

The elections, whatever their faults, did make clear that Mubarak is up against three formidable conflicting political blocs, two of which, the rising Wafdist current and the Moslem fundamentalists, are hostile to the 1952 revolution and want to radically change the existing order.

The third force, the 315,000-man Army, remains as silent as the sphinx but is unlikely to allow power to slip from its leaders' grasp or to tolerate any radical change.

Most Egyptian and foreign analysts agree that Mubarak inherited a heavy political legacy from Sadat, who in the last months of his rule alienated almost every segment of society -- Moslem fundamentalists, Christian Copts, leftist and rightist politicians, intellectuals and businessmen.

It took Mubarak until early this month -- three years and three months -- to absolve himself of this "Sadat legacy." The final step was ending the banishment to a desert monastery of the Coptic Christian pope, Shenouda III, and his reinstatement as patriarch. This has gone a long way toward appeasing Egypt's 5 million Copts.

Earlier, on Sept. 30, a special security court made a decision that assuaged the Moslem militants: 174 extremists implicated in an uprising in Assyut immediately after Sadat's assassination, in which 87 persons died, were acquitted; 107 others were sentenced to prison terms ranging from two to 25 years, but nobody was executed.

The sentences were widely regarded as extremely lenient, given the fact that 66 policemen had been killed in the uprising. Neither the police nor the Army was pleased at the sentences, but Mubarak did not intervene.

The Egyptian president also has moved to make amends for Sadat's treatment of the country's intellectuals and lay opposition. He has allowed two leftist newspapers, Al Ahali and Ash Shaab, to reappear, as well as the right-wing Liberal Party organ, Al Ahrar.

He also has given the fundamentalists a weekly outlet, Al Liwa Islamiya, and recently encouraged the main semiofficial dailies, Al Ahram and Al Akbar, to give more space to opposition views.

The result has been what is probably the freest press since the revolution, with far more variety of opinion and open criticism -- even of presidential pronouncements -- permitted. For the first time, Egypt has something approaching "public opinion" that has become a factor in presidential calculations.

One Egyptian columnist said he was amazed to see that Mubarak, on a visit to Al Ahram and Al Akbar in early January, actually tolerated sharp exchanges without trying to silence his questioners.

"Sadat or Nasser would never have tolerated this," said Ahmed Baha-Iddin, who had to flee to Kuwait during Sadat's rule.

This freedom of debate and expression has given rise to enormous intellectual ferment about Egypt's role in the Arab world, with one faction trying to revive its identity and another bitter at the Arab world's refusal to restore relations.

"Egyptians on the whole at the moment are deprived of a national dream and don't feel they have a national cause," said Mohammed Shaalan, a psychiatry professor at Al Azhar University. "Mubarak is trying to revive their sense of wataniya Egyptian nationalism but I don't think he is succeeding."

A new freedom for institutions is developing under Mubarak. The most remarkable example is the courts, which are showing an unprecedented degree of independent decision-making, throwing out as unconstitutional many of Sadat's decrees.

The chief judge in the trial of the Moslem extremists later defended the leniency of the sentences in an interview, significantly with the progovernment Al Ahram, saying that testimony by many of the 302 defendants had persuaded him that they had been subject to torture and forced confessions.

The courts also were instrumental in helping the opposition Wafd Party to revive despite the obstructionist tactics of the ruling National Democratic Party.

But while the courts have succeeded in reopening Egyptian politics to some opposition parties, the government bureaucracy and the ruling party repeatedly have blocked proposed changes and fought to preserve their powers.

The result has been that the ruling party and government often seem to execute policies against Mubarak's declared intentions -- as in the parliamentary elections -- giving outside observers the impression that the president is not fully in control.

The question being increasingly posed by western diplomats and analysts is how Mubarak will fare now that he has overcome the "Sadat legacy" and begins facing problems of his own making.

Such tests are not far off. The government is planning a series of price increases for key commodities such as gasoline, electricity and bread. In 1977, similar moves led to violence in the streets of Cairo.

While the increases will come at a time of high inflation and grumbling about general conditions, it is hard to tell whether they will touch off new violence. The government plan is to proceed in piecemeal fashion with as little publicity as possible.

Another test for Mubarak -- perhaps his most important -- will be his handling of the new activism among the Moslem extremists.

Since the 1952 revolution, all serious threats to Egypt's stability have come from this quarter. Extremists tried to shoot Nasser and succeeded with Sadat.

Ironically, this new activism is a direct outgrowth of Mubarak's conciliatory approach toward the fundamentalists. Some of them, like Omar Telmisani, leader of the Moslem Brotherhood, a militant Sunni organization, are clearly prepared to stay within the rules in pressing for a stricter application of the sharia, or Moslem law, in Egypt.

Others who are more militant, however, are using the government's present leniency to organize, convert and preach, leading observers to predict that it will not be long before an incident occurs that forces Mubarak, like Sadat and Nasser before him, to adopt a new, tougher approach.

How Mubarak handles such a crackdown could determine the fate of his presidency, in the view of analysts here. Both Nasser and Sadat overreacted to the Moslem extremist challenge, imprisoning thousands, silencing their muezzins and forcing them underground. Nasser got away with this tactic but Sadat did not.

Mubarak is clearly aware of Sadat's mistakes in handling the problem and has studiously tried to avoid making the same errors. But his obsession with security and his lack of self-assurance make it difficult, analysts say, to predict how he would react in a similar crisis.

Not until Mubarak faces his first serious crisis -- which he has so far avoided mostly by not making any radical decisions -- is the real Mubarak likely to stand up, observers say. Until then, it will remain unclear whether he is merely a caretaker president and interim leader or the next modern-day pharaoh of Egypt.

NEXT: The economy