CAIRO â€” In the past week, Egypt marked the historic 30-year anniversary of its peace treaty with Israel without any public celebration and only the barest public mention.
It is not surprising, really, that there was no cheering here. The timing could hardly have been worse, with memories still fresh of the Israeli offensive in Gaza.
But mention of the anniversary also served as a reminder of promises unfulfilled. Egyptians were told that the treaty would lead to a comprehensive peace, and it did not. They were told that it would allow the government to focus on political, social and economic development, instead of war. But they still live in an authoritarian state, defined for many by poverty.
Egyptians were told that the treaty would give them a voice to advocate for the Palestinians. But few see it as having turned out that way.
"Today Egypt is not influential in anything," said Osama Anwar Okasha, a leading Egyptian television writer. "It is a third-class country in this region. Egypt was the leading country and it gave up this leading role. Now it is like a postman, delivering messages."
The public mood is dark all around right now, and the sentiment points to the treaty as the start of Egypt’s decline and diplomatic impotence.
"Of course the treaty is not the cause of all of this, but it was the initial seed," said Fahmy Howeidy, a writer and political analyst in Cairo.
The peace treaty between Israel and Egypt is a bedrock of the Middle East peace process, positioning Egypt as a key player in every international diplomatic effort to resolve the Palestinian conflict. It is a pillar of Egypt’s foreign policy, as well, and an institutional given among Egypt’s governing class. President Hosni Mubarak has demonstrated that he is committed to the treaty, and to the diplomatic process and political system that built and supports the treaty.
"The government has been criticized by Arabs and so on during the Gaza attack but it stood its ground and did not waver because of these attacks against the peace treaty," said Abdel Raouf El Reedy, chairman of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs and a former ambassador to the United States. "When it comes to the government and the establishment there is a very strong commitment to the peace treaty."
The government’s supporters often respond to the call for abrogating the treaty with one question: What then? Not only would Egypt lose about $1.4 billion a year in aid, but, they argue, it would have less leverage, less credibility with the West and a greater likelihood of being dragged into a war, once again.
But Mr. Mubarak finds himself stuck in a recurring loop of history, playing the same defensive arguments over and over, struggling to convince his citizens and his neighbors that the treaty is essential to stability and peace.
There is a strong and influential alliance against Mr. Mubarak and his allies in Jordan, which also has a peace treaty with Israel, and in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, which has offered its own proposal for regional peace.
With the support of Iran, a non-Arab state, Syria and Qatar have publicly rejected diplomacy with Israel after the fighting in Gaza and called on Egypt to abandon its treaty, as well.
Thirty years ago, President Anwar el-Sadat broke ranks with his Arab allies, visited Jerusalem and agreed to peace with Israel. For his efforts, he was able to deliver the return of the Sinai, which had been captured and occupied by Israel.
After Mr. Sadat was assassinated in 1981, Mr. Mubarak became president and successfully steered Egypt back into the center of the Arab world. It had been shunned over the treaty.
But, many people here ask, then what?
"This peace treaty is not good for Egypt," said Ashraf Maged, 22, a business student at Cairo University. "What did we ever get from it, in 30 years? I don’t think the peace treaty is useful because in reality there is no peace; war is what we see."
Mr. Maged’s sentiments are widespread but also reflect a generational divide. Many among the older generation, men and women who lived through or fought in three wars with Israel, often say they see the peace treaty as a necessary evil, an end to fighting that sapped the country of its resources and left many dead and bloodied. They say it was not so much about normalizing relations, which has never happened. It was just about ending the wars.
"Young people who say the peace was a bad thing don’t understand how it was in those days," said Amir Muhammad Ragab, 58, who fought in the 1973 war and now owns a furniture shop. "They think war is like in movies. They think with their hearts, not their head. They don’t understand the price we paid for peace, the blood and effort it took. We don’t want to go back to this."
It is that generational divide that has some in Washington and Israel worried about what happens after Mr. Mubarak. He will be 81 years old in May, and while he has balked at political changes at home and maintained an authoritarian state, American officials say he has remained a valuable ally because he is from the generation that remembers the costs of war.
A headline in a recent issue of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz read: "Can Egypt-Israel Peace Survive After Mubarak Leaves Office?"
But Mr. Mubarak knows that he needs to balance his support for the treaty, against the understanding that his citizens, even the older generation, view Israel as the enemy. He also is careful not to cede ground to the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned but tolerated political and social movement, whose members have called for Egypt to withdraw from the treaty and have tried, unsuccessfully to have an Egyptian court nullify the pact.
Those efforts have resonated on the streets, even among people, like Mr. Ragab, the shop owner, who do not want to abandon the treaty, but feel duped.
"I was really shocked when the war in Gaza was raging," Mr. Ragab said. "I was angry that we couldn’t do more to stop it. Of course we shouldn’t cancel the agreement, or send our diplomats home. But I felt like now the relationship is one-sided, that Egypt’s voice wasn’t as strong as Israel’s in the relationship. It’s a one-way agreement now."
Mona el-Naggar contributed reporting.