Apasha two centuries ago, the legendary Mohammed Ali styled himself as a leader hesitant to take command but forceful once he did, harsh with his opponents and intent on using big projects and Western ideas to invigorate the Egyptian economy.

As President Hosni Mubarak moves into a fourth six-year term that will make him Egypt's longest-serving ruler since Mohammed Ali's days, he has borrowed a page from the pasha's reign, steadily opening the country to Western money and shaping his presidency around large agricultural and industrial developments -- and leaving little space for competition from potential rivals.

Mubarak said in an interview last week that he never really wanted the job he inherited in 1981, when Anwar Sadat was assassinated. The former Air Force commander said he had hoped instead to become ambassador to Paris or London. Now 71, he said he decided to seek a new term to complete the country's economic reform, but also because he thought his resignation would cause a disruptive struggle.

"I was hesitant to continue . . . but I know . . . there would be demonstrations and it would lead to big problems" if he did not, said Mubarak, whom the Egyptian parliament, charged under the country's constitution with choosing the president, recently acclaimed for another term. "Thieves would find a good opportunity to make destruction, especially the terrorist groups."

One reason Mubarak continued in office is that he has named no vice president or otherwise chosen a successor from the ranks of the ruling National Democratic Party. And opposition groups and professional syndicates largely have been marginalized by lackluster leadership and strict regulation.

Critical of the emergency detention rules, tough police practices and other methods used to combat two decades of militant Islamic terrorism, democracy advocates and human rights organizations say they hope Mubarak will use his fourth term to relax Egypt's political system to match steps being taken to open the economy.

But while democratization may proceed "step by step," the president said, it is economics that remains his chief concern: "The world is business now. . . . Politics is working for business."

That will be the underlying theme of a U.S. visit that began yesterday and comes as Egypt enters a critical phase in its effort to advance beyond building roads, power plants and telephone lines, and into the bureaucratic and regulatory reform analysts say is necessary to encourage investment and raise living standards for a steadily growing population of more than 60 million.

Along with discussing regional topics like the Arab-Israeli peace negotiations, Iraq and Iran during his visit, Mubarak said he will push to advance a free-trade agreement with the United States and court high-tech companies. An agreement with Lucent Technologies Inc. for a software development plant is expected to be signed.

Because of his durability and cooperation with the United States, Mubarak probably is the Arab leader closest to President Clinton, and Egypt, because of its size and history, is considered pivotal to regional stability.

Workmanlike and with a notoriously deadpan public persona, Mubarak has ruled largely in the shadows of Sadat, who received a Nobel Prize for making peace with Israel, and Gamal Abdel Nasser, an icon of Egyptian independence, pan-Arab politics and the nonaligned movement.

Mubarak has lasted longer than either man did. He said last week that his globally renowned predecessors -- like Mohammed Ali Pasha before them -- actually left their country "in a mess" that he has spent 18 years trying to fix by building infrastructure with the billions of dollars in U.S. aid that flowed after the Camp David accord, and battling militants.

"What I am doing is much more than Mohammed Ali did," Mubarak said. "I received the country in the most terrible situation. . . . Economy zero. Debts high. Infrastructure nothing. No hope to invite anybody to invest his money. No telephone lines. No electricity. No water or sewage. No, no, no, no, no."

The economic basics have improved significantly since Sadat's time, with a nearly balanced budget, low debt and inflation and nearly $20 billion in foreign currency reserves.

Although Egypt remains relatively poor and heavily dependent on food imports, store shelves are well-stocked, the industrial sector is growing and the country now has an investment-grade bond rating. Egypt exports electricity, allows competition among private cellular phone providers and has produced a class of entrepreneurs who are overhauling formerly state-owned companies and cutting deals in the region.

What the country has not done is fully transform a bureaucracy assembled when Nasser nationalized the economy and promised a government job to any college graduate.

The bureaucracy is at best cautious, and at worst reactionary. When the country's trade balance weakened last year, for example, officials responded with an order that all imports had to be shipped from the country in which the goods were manufactured -- a substantial barrier in an age of globally integrated factories and transport systems.

Mubarak said he is committed to continuing reforms that will make Egypt attractive to international capital.

"I heard it once that President Mubarak is just supporting the rich people," he said. "For sure. The country cannot be all poor people. It would not survive. The country cannot be all rich people. It would also disappear."

Egyptian rulers from Ottoman-era pashas back to Pharaonic times have shown a penchant for centralized mega-projects, such as the Suez Canal that connected continents and the Aswan High Dam that tamed the Nile's perennial floods. In what he described as an inherently risk-averse culture, Mubarak said it always has taken a leader to mobilize the society, whether the goal was building the Pyramids, or, in his time, convincing business people that now-booming resorts like Sharm el Sheikh on the Red Sea could be profitable.

Among other ventures, he is pushing construction of a "second Nile valley" with water diverted from the fabled river into the deserts of southern Egypt. Called impractical by some, the $88.5 billion Toshka Canal aims to double the country's arable land in 15 years, largely with private funds, and provide a livelihood for millions who would otherwise add to population pressures in Cairo and the existing Nile corridor.

An ultimate goal of such endeavors is to promote political stability through economic growth. But the country's concern with stability also can act as a brake. Mubarak said, for example, that he has been hesitant to support the patent protections that pharmaceutical companies demand against generic substitutes because it would increase drug prices. A similar logic has slowed the privatization of dozens of state-owned companies, for fear of the short-term unemployment that would result.

Likewise, Mubarak said he has no plans for major constitutional or political reform during his next term. The country is not ready socially or economically for direct election of its president, he said, and the threat of militant groups is still too great to allow quick change.

"To start opening now may lead to some instability," he said. "It needs a situation in which everything is quite calm. Everybody is satisfied as much as they can [be]. No terroristic group -- then we could go through changes. But if I did something it would be very dangerous now."

Egypt Evolves

Since President Hosni Mubarak took over the nation's leadership 18 years ago, Egypt has made large economic and social strides. The country's infrastructure -- roads, bridges, power plants -- has improved markedly and the budget is balanced. Now, Mubarak wants to push a free-trade agreement with the United States.

THEN

(1980) $26 billion :Gross Domestic Product

$560 :GDP per person (income)

(1977) $658 million :Tourism receipts

10.5% :Inflation

325,500 :Private cars in use

males 54; females 56 :Life expectancy

110-120 per 1,000 :live births Infant mortality rate

2.7% :Natural population increase

40% :Literacy

NOW

$183.9 billion (1996) :Gross Domestic Product

$2,900 :GDP per person (income)

$3.85 billion :Tourism receipts

4.6% :Inflation

1.28 million :Private cars in use

males 60; females 64 :Life expectancy

69 per 1,000 live births :live births Infant mortality rate

1.89% :Natural population increase

51% :Literacy

SOURCES: World Almanac, United Nations

CAPTION: Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is greeted as he arrives at Andrews Air Force Base to begin U.S. visit.