Israeli-American 'spy' paranoia in Egypt

A spy? Unlikely. But for some, a welcome diversion from the country's problems.

Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom
Egyptian broadsheet newspapers present on their June 13 front page pictures of Ilan Grapel, as Egypt's state security prosecution began questioning the Israeli man suspected of spying for the Mossad intelligence agency, state TV reported.

On Monday, Egypt's military government said it arrested an Israeli spy, alleging he'd been dispatched to drive a wedge between the Egyptian people and the military, and claimed that he'd been the instigator of Muslim-Christian violence in Cairo.

The accused is 26-year-old Ilan Grapel, a New Yorker who fought for Israel in the 2006 war with Lebanon and appears to have come to Cairo shortly after the popular protests against Hosni Mubarak erupted on Jan. 25. Mr. Grapel openly kept a Facebook page where he posted pictures of himself posing in front of the pyramids and checking out the protests at Tahrir Square. Not very spy-like.

In fact, the chances that Grapel is guilty of any of the things that Egypt's military rulers have accused him of are very, very slim. Instead, what appears to be going on here is the rerun of one of the oldest ploys in the Middle Eastern autocrat's book: Discrediting and distracting with accusations of collaboration with Israel.

As the protests against Mubarak gathered steam in January and early February, the panicked regime used state television and other propaganda outlets to make wild claims that the protests were being stirred up by Israeli agents and disloyal Egyptians in their employ.

That effort didn't save the doomed Mubarak, though it did whip up a fair bit of latent xenophobia, with violence and suspicion directed toward foreigners seeking to cover the protests. By the time Mubarak fell, murmurs about the need to keep Israeli infiltrators out were not uncommon among the revolutionaries on Tahrir Square.

Now, Egypt is being run by generals who call themselves The Supreme Council for the Armed Forces. They don't exactly represent the democratic change that Egypt's protesters said they wanted. While they do appear eager to get out of the direct governing game, they're also making it clear they're determined to keep intact their privileges and prerogatives – military trials, the ability to use force with impunity, and lack of scrutiny for their financial dealings.

In comes the unfortunate Grapel (who, as frightening as this must be for him, will almost certainly be released; Egypt is heavily reliant on US largesse) and the military comes up with this very odd tale of him being an Israeli spy. (Some Egyptian newspapers say Grapel was "reported" by Egyptian activists, one of the few details I actually believe.)

The Egyptian authorities have told the local press that Grapel visited a church in Cairo's Imbaba neighborhood that was later burned in Muslim-Christian rioting that left 15 dead and appears to have been started by members of the intolerant Salafi sect. The implication appears to be he had something to do with this tragedy – completely ignoring the fact that Christian-Muslim tensions and violent outbursts have been on the rise for years in Egypt, and that the salafis, kept deep underground by Mubarak's security apparatus, have had more room to operate in the new environment.

Anti-Israeli sentiment is strong across Egypt and it's easy to imagine various groups seeking to use it to mobilize for power in whatever new order emerges in the country. Stirring up xenophobic passions is a lot easier than lucidly and convincingly explaining a program to lift the country out of poverty, and the anti-Israeli cudgel is likely to be used by Islamists and Egypt's current military rulers alike.

For the moment, it appears that the generals are running the same ploy tried by Mubarak, but with greater success. Since his fall, there have been growing splits among both activists and average Egyptians alike. While some activists are furious at the use of torture and the suppression of critical voices (for instance, a blogger was given three years in jail for "defaming the military") by Egypt's current rulers, the general public appears willing to give the army time to make good on its reform promises.

The Israel bogeyman is deep in the Egyptian psyche. The country has fought and lost two wars against its Jewish neighbor and in 1954 Israel did carry out a bumbling false flag operation called the Lavon Affair (Egyptian Jews were recruited to set off a series of explosions in Egypt). That past and general distaste for Israel sometimes leads to a distrust of the country and Jews more generally that verges on paranoia.

Years ago in Cairo, I was friendly with a young Jewish-American girl who was studying Arabic at the American University in Cairo. Fond of the theater, she joined the AUC production of a Shakespeare play (I forget which one). About mid-way through rehearsals, though, she had to depart the production. Why? Because some of the Egyptian students had begun whispering that she was a Mossad spy.

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