"Are conditions in Cairo getting better or worse?"

The question is asked a thousand times a day by frustrated Cairenes, foreign residents and frequent visitors as they sit stalled in its horrendous traffic jams, fight for space on the sidewalks, slog through its sewer puddles and try to cope with its everlasting hubbub.

After living in the largest city in Africa and the Arab world for 3 1/2 years, one can draw the conclusion that the only truthful answer to this question is "yes/no."

If there is any rhythm to life and times in Cairo, it is one step forward followed by half a step back. To some, the image that comes to mind is that of a man running fast only to stay in place.

For a city estimated at up to 12 million people packed almost to the point of "standing room only" on the narrow banks of the Nile, the fact that Cairo continues to function at all is, in some ways, "a daily miracle." There is no hunger, little begging, and very little crime compared with big American cities.

Above all, there is still a sense of humor -- the country's main saving grace -- that enables Egyptians to laugh when others might cry, and turn tragedy into comedy. This, together with an unbelievable reservoir of tolerance for the daily frustrations, enables Cairenes, if not foreigners, to cope.

But ask any Egyptian, particularly one returning after a few years abroad, and he or she immediately will tell you that there has been a steady deterioration in conditions in recent years to the point of calamity. They feel a strong sense of disintegration in the quality of life.

At a recent symposium on Cairo, one statistic alone brought home the chaos that now characterizes the growth of this 1,000-year-old city: 80 percent of the house-building today is being done without licenses, inspection or planning.

Government workers frenetically run around the streets plugging one water or sewage break after another, propping up falling houses and repairing burst pipes and rotten electrical and telephone lines -- all the vital sinews that hold together a modern city.

Under the Mubarak government, Egypt is finally tackling, broadly and systematically, the renewal and expansion of water and sewage mains, the telephone and electrical power systems and the road network in and around Cairo. Billions of dollars, many provided by the U.S. aid program, have been committed to the "Save Cairo" campaign.

As a result, the city resembles a gigantic construction site from one end to the other, with a huge ditch running down the center where the new $230 million subway line will run -- "the biggest civil engineering project in Egypt today," according to the Egyptian head of the project, Gen. Mohammed Hosseini.

Like all construction projects in Cairo these days, the French-built, 30-mile-long metro is running far behind and is not expected to start up before mid-1987, 12 to 18 months behind schedule. It is designed to carry 1 million passengers a day and to replace 40 percent of the bus lines.

The metro is the centerpiece of the new transportation scheme for Cairo. With the help of Army engineers, the government is also putting up a network of elevated highways and walkways across the worst intersections and building a beltway around the city.

It is laying new water and sewage mains, power cables and telephone line and has just launched a "beautification campaign" to clean up the streets and build gardens wherever authorities can reclaim public land from squatters.

Whether all this, when finished in two to three years, will put the government ahead, behind or even with the growth of the city is anybody's guess. Just the natural growth in the city's population adds 324,000 more people a year.

So often, progress here seems an illusion, or there for only a fleeting moment. Take, for example, Interior Minister Ahmed Rushdi's much-touted "discipline campaign" to put order into downtown traffic.

The campaign started off with a burst of energy and rigor last summer with hundreds, if not thousands, of additional policemen, mostly Army recruits, put on the streets to get cars off the sidewalks, prevent double and triple parking and force pedestrians to wait at red lights and stop jaywalking.

Tow trucks went to work hauling away double-parked cars and fines soared to $50 or more for traffic violations.

At first, the rigor of the new system struck fear and a measure of order into even ill-disciplined Cairenes.

By year's end, however, downtown Cairo traffic, especially the side streets, looked like its old undisciplined self, except for a few key arteries where a phalanx of policemen was still fighting a rear-guard battle to keep order.

Occasionally, one still sees a zealous policeman arguing with an outraged jaywalker who has just been given a ticket. But invariably, dozens of other snickering Cairenes will be crossing the same street at the same time -- against the light and wherever fancy strikes them.

When progress does occur here, it comes at a cost. For example, the country's new telephone system has replaced one put together in bits and pieces over the years. American, Swedish, French, Japanese and West German firms have installed new exchanges and hundreds of thousands of new lines in Cairo and Alexandria, including direct-dial international ones.

But in addition to providing old subscribers with new lines, the government has sold off many new ones at up to $2,500 apiece. Nevertheless, lines are now far clearer, and it is possible again, after years of breakdowns, to call across the city.

The impact on traffic of the new system of overpasses and elevated highways has yet to be seen. But one wit noted that the 500,000 cars that circulate in the city daily still have to come down into the same main streets at some point, displacing, but not eliminating, the jams.

An immediate symbol of Cairo's present helter-skelter approach to "progress" is the 16-story building going up across the street from this correspondent's.

The cement pillars on many of the floors are not lined up with those under them; the parquet floors were put down before the walls were plastered.

The facade is being painted before the cement work is finished; the top three floors are not being completed, almost certainly because the owner has a license for only 12 or 13 stories. And there is no place below, in the street on under the building, for parking. CAPTION: Picture 1, Traffic jams such as this one in Tahrir Square are common in Cairo, as the city builds new utilities and transit systems. By Anna Clopet for The Washington Post; Picture 2, Construction of a $230 million subway system has disrupted downtown Cairo and is more than a year behind schedule. By Eric Ottaway for The Washington Post