Shocking events have come with such numbing regularity to Egypt recently that every moment of calm begins to carry the menace of a silent pause in a Hitchcock thriller.
Since the beginning of the Moslem holy month of Ramadan three weeks ago, a time for fasting during the day and prayers and feasting most of the night, Egypt has experienced more concerted calm than it has in a year.
But there is a strong sense, even among some government officials, that this country is merely waiting for the next crisis to happen -- as if no decision can be made, or is worth making, until the next calamity strikes.
"It is true," an aide to President Hosni Mubarak said. "It is terribly true."
"The problem is decision-making," one well-placed official said. "The problem is political management."
"We have a weak government that doesn't have its own drive and its own impetus," said a prominent political columnist who is close to the leadership and who asked, for that reason, not to be quoted by name.
"We're living in an era of political leftovers," the columnist said. "All our parties are leftovers. The governing party is the leftover of the leftover of the revolution" of Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1952.
Mohammed Heikal, who rose to prominence as Nasser's favored journalist, puts the problem another way. "All dreams are gone," he said, "and no dreams are replacing them."
Concerns among moderates about the country's political course have grown more acute over the past month. As some of the regional turmoil and the immediate impact of a widepread police mutiny in February subside, Mubarak is left facing the cold reality of two persistent and growing threats: a resurgent and apparently reorganized Moslem fundamentalist opposition and, once again, economic problems that call for solutions with potentially drastic political repercussions.
After more than 4 1/2 years in office, the president himself appears to have the good will of many of the Egyptians, including many of his political adversaries. He has generated none of the personal hatred that his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, did among some Egyptians.
His steadfast commitment to the creation of democratic institutions, especially a free press, has effectively coopted many opponents who fear that if they push too hard they could lose liberties now felt more widely here than at any time in the last 40 years.
Mubarak's refusal to impose martial law or seek out scapegoats among his political enemies during and after the police mutiny won him widespread respect. But Mubarak, whose term in office has seen little prosperity and a lot of crises, has also acquired an aura of bad luck.
When Egypt's national soccer team was fighting for its life in the final of the African Nations Soccer Cup in March and the cameras showed Mubarak in the stands, many Egyptians groaned at the sight. When he had come to other games, Egypt had lost. This time only a tie-breaking kick in overtime brought victory.
Recently, however, the frequently voiced misgivings about Mubarak's bad luck and lack of charisma have developed into more pointed critiques of the people who surround him.
Mubarak, trained as a fighter pilot, rose through the military to be Sadat's vice president without ever participating in a normal political process.
"He is not a political animal," said a moderate Egyptian intellectual. "That's his problem. He's hearing less, which is not a good sign. He's putting himself in a very small circle."
In a surprise move last September, Mubarak dismissed his experienced, politically astute and powerful prime minister, Kamal Hassan Ali. To replace him he chose an economics professor and former finance minister, Ali Lutfi.
Hassan Ali was reported to be ill. But many diplomats read the decision at the time as an attempt to demonstrate that solving the country's deepening economic crisis is the government's first priority.
Within weeks after Lutfi's appointment, however, a series of political and international crises began: the Achille Lauro cruise ship incident and its tumultuous aftermath, the hijacking of an Egypt Air flight to Malta where 60 people died in an Egyptian rescue assault, the police mutiny, and the collapse of the peace process which Egypt had tried to nurture and mediate.
Lutfi had no background for dealing with such situations. His economic programs, meanwhile, were pushed to the back burner, then thrown into chaos by the ripple effect of plunging oil prices and the evaporation of income from worried tourists.
"The poor man is unable to make any impact on the people," a leading intellectual sympathetic to the regime said of Lutfi. "Jokes are making the rounds on him."
Zaki Badr, Mubarak's choice as interior minister in the wake of the police riots, is the object of even sharper comment. His critics, including some in the government, portray him as tough but lacking political subtlety in an atmosphere so full of tension that overreaction or bad judgment could spell disaster.
To make matters worse, "questions are being asked about his honesty," one senior government official conceded privately. Whether true or not, in a political environment largely fueled by rumors, the questions themselves are damaging to a regime Mubarak has tried hard to free from his predecessor's record of corruption.
Badr came to office with a reputation for success in cracking down on Islamic fundamentalists in Assiut province, where he was governor and where a violent fundamentalist uprising took place in 1981 after Sadat's assassination.
But Badr has been much less successful in dealing with Islamic radicals nationally than was his predecessor, Ahmed Rushdi.
This year, leaders of the most radical fundamentalist factions, the Islamic Groups, told reporters that they had regrouped and were getting ready to take the offensive in their drive to force the government to adopt strict Koranic law.
For several weeks leading up to Ramadan there seemed to be a serious incident with fundamentalists "every two days" somewhere in the country, noted one government official.
The main focus of tension has been at the universities, where radical Moslems have gained control of student governments and intimidated faculty members as well.
Tensions grew when a member of the Islamic Groups was shot by a plainclothed policeman while pasting up posters for a religious rally in Assiut, 230 miles south of Cairo. Mubarak took the unusual step of sending a plane to bring the student to Cairo for treatment, but he died four days later, and Islamic rage there has festered ever since.
In late April, the politically moderate weekly magazine Al Mussawar reported 350 clashes and incidents involving fundamentalist students at the universities during the past year.
The article also reported intimidation of tourists at the town of Menya. "Stones were thrown at groups if the female members did not dress decently," it said.
The blind Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, twice jailed and twice acquitted of conspiring in the assassination of Sadat, was jailed again in April after a confrontation with police in Aswan when he and his followers tried to take over a government-controlled mosque. He remains in prison, according to fundamentalist lawyers, despite a court order to release him.
The new fundamentalist challenge is doubly worrisome to the government because of reports that several thousand automatic rifles disappeared from police arsenals during the February mutinies, raising fears that they may have fallen into the hands of radical fundamentalists.
The mood of building confrontation is strong as the younger Islamic radicals continue to intimidate their opponents and attack the government while, at the same time, the older, more peaceful Moslem Brotherhood infiltrates the political system.
Although the Brotherhood is not officially legalized, two minor opposition parties have seen its fundamentalists rise to prominent positions in their ranks, and the old, established Wafd Party introduced at least eight Moslem Brothers as members of the National Assembly on its ticket in 1984.
According to a high government source, one minister in Mubarak's Cabinet recently took to praying publicly at his office "so word will get around" that he is devout and he can curry political favor with fundamentalist elements.
Another source with close ties to the government said bitterly, "The number-one intimidated organization in Egypt is the government itself."
The country's economic problems, meanwhile, steadily add fuel to the opposition's fires.
Egypt managed to cut imports last year by more than $1 billion, according to official statistics. American bankers here report that the private sector still has large quantitites of foreign exchange and the government may succeed, with various investment opportunities, in luring some of it to the public sector.
Financially, "they just might make it through 1986," said one American banker, with muted optimism.
But the central political problem is the price of living.
The government is studying, as it has for all of Mubarak's term and much of Sadat's, how to end its system of massive and cripplingly costly subsidies. In the absence of a western-style welfare system, the subsidies have been used to keep the price of basic commodities and services within the reach of the poorest Egyptians.
But many items are now only theoretically available at subsidized prices, and the poor find themselves forced to buy them at four times the official price on the black market.
Meanwhile, housing is terribly scarce, and overcrowding in the major cities oppressive, despite the government's claims to have made significant progress in building new units.
The Moslem radicals offer no concrete solutions and answer few specific questions. Instead, they hold out a dream.
"Neither Jew nor Christian. Neither socialist nor capitalist. Neither eastern nor western," they chant. Egypt is "Islamic! Islamic!"
Few if any analysts here believe, however, that there could be a fundamentalist revolution like Iran's.
"The Egyptian people are very religious, but they are the least fanatic," said Ahmed beha-Eddin, a leading centrist intellectual.
"Do not think that the fundamentalists can come to power," one aide to Mubarak said. "This is silliness. The only thing they can do is destabilize. But the people who would take power after this would be -- what? -- another Mubarak."
As the very calm of the last few weeks sets nerves on edge, however, Moslem radicals may well emerge once again as the storm in Egypt that is waiting to happen.