Cairo's Conspiracy Pastime

The average Cairene is quick to believe that dual US-Israeli citizen Ilan Grapel is a spy, but more skeptical Egyptians in the know say that’s highly unlikely

ilan grapel (photo credit: Courtesy)
ilan grapel
(photo credit: Courtesy)
"We know the Israelis have spies here,” says Ahmad Sleiman as he carefully places his oranges in crates outside his fruit stand in the impoverished Cairo neighborhood of Imbaba. “So it’s logical to believe that Ilan Grapel was working for the Mossad,” he continues, as several of his customers nod in approval.
Across town in the equally rundown Shobra district, Muhammad Mustafa, a 51- year-old clothing retailer, echoes their fears. “The foreigners know we are weak now and the chance for destabilizing the country is high,” he says. “So we need to be extra careful these days after the revolution.” As Egypt attempts to transcend its authoritarian past and embrace democracy and free speech, its citizens are still susceptible to conspiracy theories that foreign powers are bent on destabilizing the country. And with its military rulers facing criticisms by a restless population for the sluggish pace at which members of deposed president Hosni Mubarak’s family are being brought to trial, foreigners serve as ideal scapegoats to deflect attention from their complaints and generate nationalistic support for the generals heading a transition government.
Ilan Grapel may be just such an example. Grapel, 27, immigrated to Israel from the US in 2005 and was arrested at his hotel in Egypt on June 8, accused of inciting sectarian strife and gathering intelligence. The Emory University law school student came to Egypt to work with a non-governmental organization focused on helping African refugees, arriving before the February revolution that deposed Mubarak. He attended many of the rallies in Tahrir Square, during which demonstrators protested everything from low wages to the military’s initial refusal to put the former president on trial for corruption. Mubarak and his two sons are currently being detained on charges of corruption and the murder of protesters earlier this year. The court cases are scheduled to begin August 3.
Photos plucked from Grapel’s Facebook page show him dressed in olive fatigues, and were prominently featured on the front page of many Egyptian dailies, along with articles detailing his military service as a paratrooper in the Israeli Defense Forces’ 101st Battalion and his participation in the 2006 war in Lebanon against Hizballah. The media has listed the charges against Grapel, including claims that his mission was to deliberately foment tension between the protesters and the military during the 18-day revolution.
Al-Ahram, the leading daily under the Mubarak regime, alleged in an article that “Grapel is an integral part of the Mossad. He has experience and advanced training in the Mossad.” The evidence ostensibly proffered against him includes a satellite phone allegedly found in his possession. Such equipment is popular with journalists and NGO workers, who use it in regions such as Africa and war zones, where phone service is unavailable. But in Egypt, satellite phones arouse suspicion. Foreigners attempting to bring them into Egypt through customs or using them on Cairo’s streets are subject to lengthy interrogations about their purpose.
Grapel’s family has denied the charges against him, with his mother Irene calling them “complete fabrications,”according to media reports.
Despite the lack of substantive evidence, many in Egypt were quick to declare Grapel guilty. “The Israelis are always trying to pick up information in Egypt,” says Muhammad Asfour, a 42-year-old state employee. “Being a student provides a perfect cover to learn about the country.” Others with more knowledge of foreign affairs, however, were more circumspect. “How can the guy be a spy when he comes into the country under his own name and has a Facebook account showing him in military uniform?” a retired army officer who writes about security issues asks rhetorically, while speaking on condition of anonymity.
In fact, while many average Cairenes were prone to accept the state’s accusations against Grapel, those with knowledge of foreign affairs in general, and Egyptian-Israeli affairs in particular, were quick to discount the charges.
Experts note that the Egyptian public is vulnerable to such conspiracy stories because Mubarak, who controlled the media, regularly fed the population a heavy dose of anti-Israel propaganda. From accusing Israel of selling Egyptian farmers bad fertilizer to destroy their crops to charging the Mossad with trying to corrupt Egyptian youth by distributing aphrodisiacs disguised as bubble gum, Egyptians are inclined to see the Jewish state’s hand behind every evil plaguing the country.
When an Egyptian pilot crashed an Egypt Air plane in 1999, the local media immediately blamed Israel for the disaster. Newspapers accused the Mossad of downing the plane, in order to kill army officers on the flight who were returning from training in the US. Though the American National Transportation Safety Board found neither evidence that a bomb had caused the crash nor proof that mechanical failures were responsible, to this day Egyptians still largely believe that Israel was responsible.
High-profile spy cases have also plagued relations between the two countries. Azzam Azzam, an Israeli Druze working in Egypt, was arrested on charges of espionage in 1996. Shortly afterward, Mubarak told the Israeli daily “Yedioth Ahronoth” that the case could have been resolved quickly had the Israeli media not publicized the incident. Despite the dubious evidence proffered against him in court – including charges of passing messages to his handlers using invisible ink – Azzam was convicted and served eight years in prison before being released in a prisoner swap in 2004.
“No one will acknowledge it, but every time the authorities here catch an Israeli spy, he turns out to be an Israeli who crossed over from Israel,” says an analyst who works on security affairs. “They are never the Mossad spies caught in Switzerland or Dubai,” he says, referring to cases where Israeli intelligence agents were caught engaging in real espionage activities using passports from other countries.
Other Egyptian commentators blame Grapel’s arrest on internal instability. “His case is linked more to fears of what is going on in the country than to any concrete spy activity,” explains a political science professor. “The generals [who took power after Mubarak resigned] have their hands full with the protesters and their demands. If they can deflect their anger away temporarily and point to some external threat against the country, maybe the people will forget about being angry with the generals and start looking at them as the protectors of the country,” the professor says.
“Of course we would back the military council if there were an external threat. We can’t let our enemies take advantage of us,” explains 36-year-old Muhammad Samra, a hotel cook. Asked if the military could have concocted the Grapel affair to divert attention away from its difficulties, the cook flicks his hand, brushing away the suggestion. “The military protects the country. It doesn’t bog it down in more problems.” In contrast, others see the logic in the suggestion. “The generals are facing a lot of problems,” admits Yusuf Attia, a 35-year-old cellphone salesman. “Maybe they found this foolish guy who was causing trouble with the protesters and just found him useful. Because he sure doesn’t look like a spy.”
For three decades, since his appointment as president after his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, was assassinated because he had signed peace accords with Israel, Mubarak served as a bulwark against the frequent and vociferous Egyptian calls to sever relations with and declare war against the Jewish state.
He resisted these demands even during the most strained times in the bilateral relationship, such as during the 1982 war against the Palestine Liberation Organization in Lebanon and the second intifada that broke out in September 2000. But Mubarak consistently allowed the press to lash out at Israel, using the press as a vehicle for Egyptians to vent their frustrations.
The Grapel affair illustrates that Egypt’s transition to democracy is unlikely to reduce hostility toward Israel or to dispel beliefs that the Jewish state is responsible for many of Egypt’s woes. Furthermore, with an unbridled press publishing sensational accounts and new publications competing for readers, episodes such as the Grapel affair are likely to proliferate.
“Egyptians have been taught that Israel is the enemy. That won’t change,” explains a local journalist. “With no censor to moderate views, the media can say whatever they want. And that means writing the most outrageous things against Israel.”