She is one of the nameless millions of Egyptian woman dressed in traditional black robes who can be seen pushing and sometimes screaming at the doors of the government cooperatives where she goes to buy food rations.

"The crowds there will kill," she says about the cooperatives, while two of her six children clutch her dress. "I wait for two to three hours in line, and maybe when I get there, everything will be finished."

Even with the present shortages, the government is debating how to cut its subsidies on food and basic services.

Ever since Gamal Abdel Nasser began his socialist policies in the early 1960s, millions of Egyptians have become increasingly addicted to state subsidies for their survival.

But as Egypt enters a period of severe economic crisis, the "social contract" negotiated between Nasser and the Egyptian people, which guaranteed education, jobs and welfare, is now open for debate.

Egyptian policymakers have long known that the state's support of many of these programs would have to be cut, but fear of political repercussions has delayed such moves. The memory of the 1977 riots that followed former president Anwar Sadat's deep subsidy cuts haunt the current administration.

Apprehension about making the cuts exists, but the money has run out, and pressure for reform from foreign benefactors such as the United States and the International Monetary Fund is increasing. A high-level Egyptian delegation is now in Washington for talks with the government and the IMF about more loans and better loan terms. A sympathetic hearing is believed to hinge on Egyptian commitments to reform.

Just as Egyptians have become dependent on government assistance to subsist, the government has become addicted to external sources of income, including massive injections of aid. But those sources are drying up, and Egypt may have to overcome its problems with more of its own resources. That will not be easy.

The plunge in world oil prices over the past year has made Egypt's already severe economic problems more acute. Experts believe that Egypt's two top hard currency earners -- remittances from workers abroad and oil exports -- will both drop by at least $1 billion in the coming year.

Tourism, another source of hard currency, has been hard-hit by the increase in political violence in the region, and could suffer a 40 percent drop in earnings this year.

Despite proclamations by President Hosni Mubarak that population control is essential to the country's stability, the birthrate has gone up recently. Egypt's population, now about 50 million, grows by 1 million people every nine months.

Egypt's debt is estimated between $33 billion and $36 billion. The principal on U.S. military loans taken in the mid-1970s is scheduled for repayment beginning next year, and will push Egypt's debt-servicing requirement up to $3.5 billion, more than 40 percent of the country's current earnings.

The Egyptian population, crowded into the 4.5 percent of the nation's habitable territory, depends on imports for more than 50 percent of its food, as well as for necessary capital goods. Egyptian exports, in the words of one western diplomat, are "in ruins."

"Even the best government can't solve these problems. There is no solution," conceded Waheed Rifaat, a leader of the opposition New Wafd Party. "We need a government to save whatever can be saved now."

The way toward saving, however, is a political minefield.

Egypt has allocated each year about $4 billion for direct and indirect subsidies. The subsidies cover essential food items, electricity, gasoline, education, transportation, and communications.

"Subsidies started as a small item in the budget, but have now become a leviathan," said Ahmed Dersh, a senior adviser to the minister of economy and foreign trade. "It would be fine if such subsidies went to those who need them, and were banned from those who don't, but this is not the case."

The essential dilemma facing reformers is how to determine which Egyptians are really in need, and how to direct assistance accordingly. At present, 97 percent of Egyptians have ration cards entitling them to some subsidized goods.

In addition to food and energy subsidies, the government offers free university education and guarantees jobs to all graduates. There has not been an explicit change in this policy, but public offices and businesses are so bloated and inefficient that the waiting list for such employment now numbers over 1 million.

Tension in the public sector was reflected in wildcat strikes at two of Egypt's textile centers during the past five months. Striking workers were "resolutely saying, 'We cannot put up with rising prices and low incomes,' " said one western diplomat.

"Were the textile strikes the first shots in the campaign, a signal to the government?" the diplomat asked.

The February riots by security police conscripts, who occupy one of the lowest rungs on the economic ladder, also concerned officials here.

With these events in mind, the government is trying to lay the political groundwork for sensitive reforms by "educating" the people about the need for austerity while at the same time promising to protect those in dire need.

Not everyone is convinced. But on the street, "people are terrified of food crisis," according to the manager of one cooperative. "As soon as supplies are available, they come and buy everything up."

Egyptian analysts and western diplomats are divided in their forecasts for Egypt's future. Many have faith that Egyptians are "resilient," and that the present government will "muddle through." Others believe, in the words of one diplomat, that "the ship is going down."

In the end, the success or failure of the government will be measured in the streets, where there are millions of people who do not understand the concept of national debt, but know well the price of bread.