Abdu Gubeer, one of Egypt's promising new authors, wrote a book about a metaphorical message, which reads, "We're coming." The hero struggles to deliver the message -- and with it, the ideal destiny of Egypt -- but fails.

Gubeer, a liberal, later found a note delivered to him with a copy of his book, placed under the door of his flat.

The book was smeared with dung. The message, in part, read, "Bullets cost us nothing." It was signed "The Jamaat" -- an umbrella term for a large number of Islamic fundamentalist organizations whose enlistment is mainly from Egypt's increasingly disillusioned youth.

The book and the episode reflect, in many ways, the competing anxieties of Egypt's young. According to many experts, it is a "lost generation" -- a generation in need of someone to show it the way. But the failure of anyone to do so and the related vacuum of ideology and ideals have fertilized the ground for extremism.

Ali Hilal Dessouki, a professor of political science at Cairo University, refers to Egypt as "a stalemate society."

"It's a society expecting something, but it does not know when it will happen, or who will do it," he said.

Many observers here see the riots two weeks ago by members of the Central Security Force -- young conscripts from the bottom rung of the economic ladder -- as the first real outburst resulting from the mounting frustrations of this younger generation. Others see portents in the less violent, more political demonstrations of students, who have been increasingly critical of Israeli and U.S. policy in the region, as well as the government of President Hosni Mubarak.

The rioting policemen, who earn about $4 per month and who thought that their term of duty was to be extended by a year, attacked handy symbols of opulence -- luxury hotels and nightclubs. Partly due to their actions, foreign earnings will be down, and life will become less and less tolerable.

As the bottom falls out on Egypt's economy -- Egypt's foreign revenues are expected to drop as much as 40 percent this year, primarily because of the fall in oil prices -- the pressures on youth increase.

"All dreams are gone, and no plans are replacing them," said Mohammed Hassanein Heikal, one of Egypt's foremost political commentators. "When you are strong, you don't need a dream. You need a dream when you are in crisis."

It is the youth who are often the most hard-hit by the economic crisis striking Egypt. There is an ever-lengthening waiting list for government-guaranteed employment, and for those who can find work, salaries are usually too low to afford housing, a necessary prerequisite for marriage here.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, the easy answer was to travel to the oil-rich Arab countries, where it was possible to earn enough money to be able to return to Egypt and enjoy a decent living. But as oil revenues dry up, so does the job market for Egyptians, who are returning home by the thousands.

"The regime is walking on a very sensitive rope, trying to keep democratization going, trying to keep law and order, while trying to deal with the implacable problems of Egypt," said sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim.

One of the most often heard criticisms of Mubarak is his lack of charisma and concomitant inability to provide a vision to motivate this sleeping giant of 49 million people.

The National Democratic Party, which is led by Mubarak and controls 85 percent of the parliament, has practically no representation or active support on university campuses, according to observers here. The small opposition parties, which generally have their roots in the days of former president Gamal Abdel Nasser, or even to the period before the 1952 revolution, have little support. The student councils are almost entirely controlled by Moslem groups.

"The lost generation is looking for Islam," said Mohammed Abdel Qadoos, a newspaper columnist and member of the Moslem Brotherhood. He added that "the greatest support for Islam in Egypt is the youth."

According to several observers, fundamentalist Islam is winning by default.

During the past 34 years, Egypt has steered a course from a British-dominated monarchy, to socialism, to U.S.-backed, western capitalism, and all experiments appear to have failed. The only untested system, and, to its promoters, the only truly indigenous system, is the Islamic one.

But while experts across the political spectrum say that fundamentalism here is on the rise, they add that the speed of its ascent has lessened. Even Islam as an ideal has become confused, they say.

One example used to illustrate this is a change in dress for Moslem women. Many women now wear the traditional veil over their hair, and yet the veil is often worn under a sequin-studded pillbox, and their long dress is often dazzlingly colorful, extending to a pair of high-heeled pumps.

The appeal of fundamentalist Islam has suffered setbacks, experts here say, because of its failures elsewhere in the region. For those who once looked to Iran as a symbol, the Iranian-Iraqi war is becoming increasingly difficult to understand; moreover, the Iranian government is often viewed as repressive, with little to offer in the way of social or economic reform. The corruption of Sudanese former president Jaafar Nimeri's Islamic government is also ready evidence that rule by Moslem law is not necessarily the sure solution to a country's problems, observers here say.

In Gubeer's book, fundamentalists claim that the symbolic message is meant for them, but the messenger refuses to turn it over. The messenger is Egypt's average citizen -- well-intentioned, searching day and night through Cairo's chaotic streets, but unable to trust anyone who would receive the message.

Mubarak has tried to give Islamic groups a voice, but not the right to form a political party. Meanwhile, he has tried to stir what he has called "a great awakening" in Egypt, to mobilize all the country's potential toward development. So far, no great mobilization has taken place, and jokes have been told about "the great asleepening."

But while the vacuum of ideals may partly explain the younger generation's growing disillusionment, the bleak economic situation is the foundation, according to several observers.