The campaign by the Kifaya group is a sign of how the war in Lebanon knocked momentum from democracy efforts and left many reform activists deeply resentful of the United States.
Over the past two years, Washington has made promoting democracy a key part of its Middle East policy. But now reformists accuse Washington of supporting Israel in its offensive against Hezbollah guerrillas, which wreaked widespread destruction in Lebanon.
Edward S. Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel, believes Kifaya's new campaign showcases Washington's dilemma as it strives to sell the values of democracy and freedom in a region galvanized for decades by the Arab-Israeli conflict.
"One of the costs of pressing for democracy in the Middle East is the fact that most democratically based Arab parties ... will be hostile to Israel," said Walker, now with the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based think tank.
The Kifaya movement has launched a campaign to collect 1 million signatures on a petition calling for the annulment of Egypt's U.S.-sponsored 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
The move is mainly symbolic, but it highlights the extent of resentment felt by Egyptians toward Israel — and by association, the United States, its main backer.
"The Lebanon war is responsible," said George Ishaq, Kifaya spokesman and founding member. "The petition is a reaction in part to the (Egyptian) regime's feeble diplomatic handling of the war." He said 100,000 signatures have been collected so far.
The Egyptian-Israeli treaty ended hostilities between the two neighbors, after four wars between 1948 and 1973, and is cited by successive U.S. administrations as a model for peaceful coexistence in the region. But it failed to dent the animosity most Egyptians feel for Israel.The anti-Israel campaign is a major shift for Kifaya, whose name is Arabic for "Enough" — as in enough of the 25-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak.
The movement, made up of politicians, intellectuals and rights activists, burst onto Egypt's political scene two years ago, holding noisy demonstrations aimed at stopping Mubarak from seeking a fifth 6-year term in office or allowing his son, Gamal, to succeed him.At least for a time, Kifaya's actions captured Washington's attention as a movement with the potential to peacefully bring reform. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice met with Kifaya and other reform activists during a visit to Cairo last year.
The movement succeeded in breaking down deeply ingrained political taboos, particularly by calling openly for Mubarak to step down. Its colorful street protests stirred up Egypt's stagnant politics and made democratic reform a top issue.
Still, Kifaya failed in its immediate political goals — the 78-year-old Mubarak was re-elected a year ago. Many believe his son is still on course to succeed him.
Many Egyptians strongly oppose an accession to power by Gamal Mubarak, seeing it as a mere continuation of his father's rule.
Now Kifaya is more concerned with Israel. On its Web site, dozens of postings expound on the pros and cons of abolishing Egypt's peace treaty.
Some wrote that peace with Israel was "an illusion" and a "danger to Egyptian national security." Another said it was time for Egyptians to "struggle" against Israel.
"The most prominent casualty of Washington's policy during the Lebanon war was its program for democracy in the Middle East," said Amr Hamzawi, a Middle East expert at Carnegie Endowments, a Washington think tank. "When an elected government in Lebanon faced a challenge, the American administration blatantly took the side of Israel."
Tens of thousands across the Arab world protested Israel's Lebanon offensive, focusing their anger on Washington because it rejected calls for a quick cease-fire. The United States argued a quick truce would not last without new political realities on the ground, but many Arabs saw that as just a green light for Israel to press on with its campaign.
"The Americans' handling of the Lebanon war has undermined an already diminishing U.S. credibility in the Arab world," said Rosemary Hollis, a London-based Middle East expert.