Is Ilan Grapel an Israeli spy, or an innocent victim of Egypt's overactive imagination?
- By Max StrasserMax Strasser is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Prior to joining FP, he lived and worked in Cairo from 2009 to 2012 and was the news editor at Egypt Independent, an English-language newspaper. He has been a freelance writer, covering everything from the fishing business in Turkey to international arms fairs in London to Islamist militancy on the Egypt-Gaza border. His writing has appeared online or in print in The Nation, The New Statesman, The London Review of Books, Foreign Affairs, The Atlantic, Newsweek, and elsewhere. Max is a proud New Jersey native and has a BA in History from Oberlin College and an MSc in International Political Economy from the London School of Economics.
CAIRO — Sayyid Kamel isn’t sure of the veracity of the charges being leveled against Ilan Grapel, a 27-year-old Israeli-American law-school student who was arrested June 12 by Egyptian police on charges of espionage. "I didn’t see him with my own eyes, so I can’t know," Kamel, an auto mechanic, told me as we stood on a sunny sidewalk in the middle class Cairo neighborhood of Mounira. "But if I did see him, I would kill him on the spot."
Kamel’s friend sitting nearby, a security guard named Hassan Mahmoud, was more decisive: Grapel is definitely a spy. "There are lots of foreigners trying to destabilize Egypt right now to assure that the revolution fails," Mahmoud said. "But we have the best intelligence in the world."
Pictures of Grapel have adorned the front page of nearly every major Egyptian daily newspaper since his arrest earlier this week, accompanied by banner headlines accusing him of everything from inciting Egypt’s recent incidents of sectarian violence to spreading dissent against the ruling military council to collecting information on Egypt’s revolutionary youth.
But for those digging deeper than the pages of state-owned flagship paper Al-Ahram, there are some fishy details. For one thing, the pictures have all been plucked from Grapel’s very accessible Facebook page. (Some include the dastardly secret agent standing in front of a pyramid and next to a sphinx.) Grapel entered Egypt on a passport using his real name. His friends say that despite his service in the Israeli army, he is a pro-peace Israeli who loves Arab culture.
All of this suggests that Ilan Grapel is hardly a skilled Israeli spy capable of orchestrating all of the major problems facing post-uprising Egypt. Nonetheless, some — though not all — Egyptians are buying it.
Conspiracy theories have long been something of a national pastime in Egypt. While all things Israel-related might make for the best subjects — last year some here even blamed shark attacks on the Mossad — pretty much anything is fair game. (A friend here recently told me that during last winter’s anti-government protests, his cousin, a die-hard fan of the Zamalek soccer club, claimed that the revolution had been planned by supporters of Zamalek’s rival team, Ahly, who hoped to cancel the championship tournament.)
The period of uncertainty following President Hosni Mubarak’s departure has been a perfect breeding ground for conspiracy theories. Indeed, they abound: Israel tries to destabilize Egypt. So does the United States. So does Iran. Saudi Arabia plots how to keep Egypt in its foreign policy orbit by funding religious extremists. Shadowy counterrevolutionary forces keep the economy in shambles. The military intends to maintain its grip on state power long after elections in September bring in a new parliament. The Muslim Brotherhood deceives voters in order to bring about a theocratic state. Secular parties plan to strip society of religion. The remnants of the Mubarak regime are plotting to return themselves to power. On street corners and in newspapers, everyone, it seems, has a theory about who is secretly conspiring to control what.
Some of these conspiracies, like the one about the head of the military council being a secret member of the Muslim Brotherhood, are preposterous. Others, like the one about the military seeking to maintain a strong role in future governments, are more plausible. And if there is widespread paranoia about nefarious plans being made out of public view, it is not without reason.
For 30 years under Mubarak, Egyptians lived in one of the most corrupt and least transparent countries in the world, where the regime presented one façade to the public while pursuing a radically different agenda in private. Nowhere was this clearer than in the case of Israel. Over its 30 years in power, the Mubarak regime regularly referenced "Israeli plots" against Egypt’s sovereignty and promoted itself via state media as tough on Israel, while it collaborated with the Israeli government on a host of intelligence and security issues.
In 2005, the Mubarak regime agreed to sell Egyptian natural gas to Israel at below-market prices. The deal, which was widely condemned by the Egyptian public and intelligentsia, was concluded in such convoluted secrecy that it could be called nothing less than conspiratorial. (Since Mubarak left in February, the interim government has responded to calls to restructure the deal. Discussions are ongoing.)
Mubarak is gone, swept from power by an 18-day-long uprising that demanded a more accountable government. But the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), which took power after he left, is hardly more open. The mysterious SCAF makes major decisions about post-Mubarak Egypt’s future in complete secrecy, releasing its most important statements through its impersonal Facebook page. Occasionally, an anonymous SCAF representative calls into TV news shows to offer comment.
Meanwhile, the newly emerging political forces are also in the process of cutting backroom deals. On Wednesday, 13 political parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, announced that they are forming a National Coalition for Egypt to foster the creation of a national unity government. Surprisingly, the coalition also includes leftist and liberal parties. The National Coalition for Egypt may fall short of a full-fledged conspiracy, but it doesn’t showcase a great amount of transparency, either.
The accusations against Grapel, the alleged Israeli spy, may be the biggest conspiracy yet. The details remain opaque, but there are a number of theories worth considering. As many activists continue to complain about the military’s behavior, from its secrecy to its use of military trials for civilians, pinning the blame on Israel is a convenient way for the generals to deflect criticism and protect their own reputations, while at the same time tainting the protesters as serving an Israeli agenda. (Mubarak used similar tactics during the protests.) On the other hand, capturing an alleged Israeli spy might be designed to make the mukhabarat, Egypt’s intelligence service, appear vital to the country’s security.
Egypt’s web-savvy youth have rejected the story as a government fabrication, lambasting the case on Twitter under the hashtag #elGasoos (the Spy). Hossam el-Hamalawy, a prominent left-wing blogger and revolutionary, wrote a scathing post putting the Grapel case in historical perspective. "Dear Mukhabarrat, stop treating us like children," Hamalawy wrote. "Who the hell is this Israeli super agent who will single handedly go around fomenting protests, agitating against the army in the streets and mosques? Get a life, grow up…."
But many Egyptians seem ready to believe the accusations against Grapel. In a period of tremendous political upheaval, economic stagnation, and rising crime, it is easy to imagine foreign powers meddling in Egypt’s internal affairs. A story about an Israeli spy serves as a perfect vessel for the feelings of uncertainty.
But even on the streets of Mounira not everyone believes what they read. Moustafa, who keeps a shop selling soda, cigarettes, and other basic goods, is a bit skeptical. When I asked him what he thought about the case against Grapel, he shrugged. "We don’t know what to believe anymore," he said. "Anything is possible."