Beset by disturbing new outbreaks of domestic political and religious friction, President Sadat is heading for a series of crucial summit meetings in Washington with President Carter.
Mr. Sadat is in urgent need of some visible sign to show his detractors, both at home and in the Arab world, that his decision to recognize Israel is paying off. So far, talks with Israel over Palestinian autonomy have deadlocked. And the arrival here of the former Shah of Iran has multiplied mili tant student and Islamic protests against Mr. Sadat's policies, especially his Israeli treaty.
Hency President Sadat says he will bring to Washington new proposals to resolve his disagreement with Israel Prime Minister Menachem Begin over Palestinian autonomy. That dispute has chilled Egyptian-Israeli relations; and the days in which President Sadat would effusively embrace "my friend Menachem" appear to be over.
Under the terms of their year-old peace treaty, Egypt, Israel, and the United States have until a May 26 target date to prepare for elections in the West Bank and Gaza in which Palestinians will select representatives to a self-governing authority.
The deadlock has arisen over how much authority the Palestinians will have and in what areas they will have it. Egyptian officials argue that the Israelis , alleging national-security interests, have tried all along to restrict autonomy to the most trivial fields in order to retain sovereingty for themselves.
Mr. Sadat now says he will suggest that autonomy, assuming the parties can concur in what the concept means, be applied first in the Gaza Strip and the Arab eastern sector of Jerusalem. If Palestinian self-rule works out in these two areas, Mr. Sadat believes there will be a model and a precedent for the West Bank.
While it is conceivable the Israelis might accept Mr. Sadat's plan for Gaza, which Egypt administered until the 1967 war, they are not likely to agree to autonomy for east Jerusalem. Prime Minister Begin has unequivocably declared that Jerusalem, also captured by Israel in 1967, will remain the undivided capital of his country.
President Sadat is scheduled to return to Cairo on April 10 to await the outcome of President Carter's meetings with Mr. Begin, due to be held next week. For Egypt, these are the most important sessions, as Mr. Sadat has said that if the autonomy negotiations fail it will be Prime Minister Begin's fault. Editorialists in the Cairo press have concurred.
For Mr. Sadat, with the autonomy target date creeping up on him, the latest Carter initiative must provide at least a hint that he has gotten Israel to take the rights of the Palestinians seriously. It could be an agreement on autonomy in Gaza, or on the transfer of significant powers from Israeli military authorities to the Palestinians. It could be a freeze on the provocative Israeli settlements on the West Bank. Anything, in short, that will give President Sadat something to show for his decision to recognize Israel.
Crucial as his trip is, however, it has come at an awkward time. Mr. Sadat is leaving Egypt after a week in which thousands of militant university students demonstrated on four separate occasions against the presence of the exiled Shah of Iran in Egypt -- and against the Egyptian leader who invited him here for medical attention and political asylum.
If that were not enough, bishops of Egypt's Coptic Christian Orthodox Church announced that they were boycotting all Easter-week festivities to protest what they said has been a mounting campaign of physical harassment throughout the country by Muslim extremists.
Coptic officials cited incidents of alleged church burnings, attacks on Christian university students, and abductions of Christian girls. The bishops and their head, Pope Shenuda III, then retreated to desert monasteries northwest of Cairo and were conspicuously not on hand on Sunday to receive the traditional Easter greetings from the Egyptian government.
By taking such an unprecedented step at a time when Egypt is in the world limelight, the Copts apparently want to dramatize their grievances -- in the hope of prodding the government into protecting their interests more forcefully.
The administration's anxiety over recent developments, both in Asyut and in Coptic- Muslim relations, was clearly evident in a recent speech to the Egyptian parliament by the minister of the interior. The government, he warned, cannot tolerate threats to national unity just as President Sadat is about to embark on the final stage of his peace initiative on behalf of the Palestinians.
In his speech, the Interior Minister, Nabawi Ismail, did little to reassure the Copts. He blandly denied there is any serious sectarian strife in Egypt and accused extremists and rumormongers on both sides of stirring up the trouble.
It is generally recognized that Christians and Muslims have lived together harmoniously in Egypt for centuries, but the Copts, who now number 6 million, remain a vigilant and cohesive community. When incidents begin to accumulate, as church authorities say they have, Copts have shown that they can act effectively as a single body.
There lately have been reports that members of the large Egyptian Coptic community in the US may demonstrate against President Sadat when he is in Washington. From his monastery, however, Pope Shenuda has sent the President a message of support for his American mission.
Nevertheless, Mr. Sadat, as this past week has shown, is not without potentially grave local opposition, and there now are compelling domestic reasons for him to emerge from the Carter initiative with some measure of a foreign-policy victory.