CAIRO -- In the smoke-filled cafes of the teeming Boulaq garment district, the mention of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's name these days sets off a babble of angry opinions.

"Saddam is a son of a whore and needs a beating. If he had any sense of patriotism or masculinity, he would never have done this to the Arab nation," boomed Antar Sayyid, a portly diesel mechanic, as he sipped strong Turkish coffee and pulled on his water pipe.

Ahmed Said, a house painter, had an opinion about the Americans and other Westerners trapped in Kuwait and Iraq whom Baghdad has threatened to use as hostages against possible U.S. attacks on strategic targets.

Saddam "is crazy. He is cornered, and he no longer knows what he is doing. He's an embarrassment to the Arab nation," he said.

Wherever Egyptian men gather in the hot Cairo afternoons to pass the time, opinions about Saddam flow like the glasses of coffee or sweet tea that refill endlessly without so much as a beckon to a waiter.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak also provokes criticisms, but they have become more respectful since the Iraqi army's invasion and occupation of Kuwait on Aug. 2 and Egypt's response. The colloquial reference to Mubarak as "boss" is giving way to a designation meaning "leader," and it is Mubarak instead of Saddam who is regarded as strong -- a paramount attribute in Arab culture.

Since the Aug. 10 Arab summit here, when Mubarak almost singlehandedly rammed through a majority decision to send an all-Arab military force to defend Saudi Arabia against a possible Iraqi attack, his stock among ordinary Egyptians has risen steadily.

Once regarded as the somewhat bland and indecisive successor to the assassinated Anwar Sadat, Mubarak now is reaping the public benefits of the abuse heaped on him from Baghdad, where he is branded as a lackey of American imperialists and of oil emirs in the Persian Gulf.

"He wants peace. He doesn't want infighting between Arabs. He's controlled. If I were in his place, I would have hit them all {Iraqis}. He has a lot of self-control," said Abdel Mahti, a retired printer, as he sat in a cafe. "Mubarak made everybody in the Arab nation friends. They were all eating from the same bowl before Saddam did this thing," he added.

Saddam's public opinion ratings here seem to fluctuate with events. Last week, when the numbers of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia were mounting daily and images of the airlifts were flashing across television screens, a hint of sympathy -- mixed with respect for strength -- crept into conversations with Egyptians.

But when Saddam told Iran that he was willing to accept Tehran's original peace demands and return to borders that were recognized before the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq, the move was interpreted by many Egyptians as a sign of weakness.

"What was this war for?" asked one official. "The noose is closing, and he is getting nervous," he added.

For Mubarak, as for President Bush, the gulf crisis is certain to be seen by historians as a benchmark. If the Western powers' and conservative Arabs' strategy is successful and Kuwait's sovereignty can be restored without a conflagration, Mubarak's stature as a moderate Arab statesman will almost certainly be assured, Western diplomatic analysts say.

But public opinion in the Middle East can be fickle, and some pro-government Egyptian analysts say that if Arab blood is spilled on a large scale by U.S. troops, or if the all-Arab military force that Mubarak and his Arab League colleagues sent to Saudi Arabia is humiliated in battle, Mubarak's domestic popularity could swing the other way quickly.

Referring to Saddam's call for an uprising against conservative Arab leaders like Mubarak, one senior diplomat said: "If the stirrings don't take off and if the noose tightens around Iraq and the goal of its withdrawal from Kuwait is achieved, Egypt is going to come out in a strong position."

However, the diplomat said, "the tendency in this region is that if one leader gets too big, the others begin to worry. This factor is certainly working against Iraq. It proves that you don't let anybody get too far ahead."