For Arab autocrats seeking to deflect attention from their own failings, spinning tall tales about the Israeli Mossad is usual fare. President Bashar al-Assad blames the intelligence agency for instigating the protests in Syria, though the demonstrators clearly have nothing to do with Israel. In Iran, people close to the regime have described Facebook as a tool of the Mossad and Mark Zuckerberg as its agent. While it’s an old trick, Arab anger at Israel over its treatment of Palestinians – coupled with the widespread belief that Mossad can and would do anything to stymie the Arabs—makes the trope hard for Arabs to resist. Last December, even a shark attack was seen as Israeli tampering. “What is being said about the Mossad throwing the deadly shark [in the sea] to hurt tourism in Egypt is not out of the question,” South Sinai governor Mohamed Abdel Fadil Shousha was quoted as saying after the body of a diver washed ashore at Sharm al-Sheikh with bite marks.
A case now unfolding in Cairo seems to fit the old pattern. Last Sunday, Egyptian police arrested 27-year-old Emory law student Ilan Grapel, who holds both American and Israeli citizenship, and accused him of being an officer of the Mossad. By even the loosest standards of spycraft, Grapel seems too bumbling to be a secret agent. He entered the country on his real passport, had photos of himself dressed in an Israeli army uniform posted on his Facebook page, and did not hide from Egyptians the fact that he spoke Hebrew. Yet officials announced the details of his case as if he had already been convicted. The state-run Al-Ahram newspaper said Grapel had tried to stir up tensions between Christians and Muslims in order to undermine Egypt. It also alleged that Grapel tried to incite Egyptians against the military council that has run the country since protesters ousted longtime president Hosni Mubarak in February.
I was in Cairo when authorities announced Grapel’s arrest (he has yet to be charged). Among the people I interviewed for a separate story – analysts, activists and just plain Egyptians – the news generated huge interest. But it also added to the confusion that marks Egypt these days. The revolution in February ended 30 years of one-man rule. In the new Egypt, political parties are forming and the contours of a new constitution are being debated. But in the interim, vestiges of the old regime are still running the country, occasionally resorting to the manipulative and repressive measures of the Mubarak era. Grapel, whose eccentric behavior might have caught the attention of the mukhabarat (the secret police that helped prop up Mubarak’s regime), seems to have been snared in the web of the old system.
The good news is that some Egyptians, without necessarily softening their criticism of Israel, are ready to criticize even Egypt’s security agencies, a taboo that the military council is desperate to preserve. A column this week in the privately-held Almasry Alyoum newspaper included a scathing critique of other Egyptian media whose “reporters sometimes seem to stretch the truth, adopt conspiracy theories and spread rumors rather than stick to the facts” of the affair. A historian quoted in the paper, Mohammed al-Gawady, pointed out that Israel stood to gain nothing from Grapel, who apparently attended a few protests at Tahrir square and traveled around the country. Blogger Hossam al-Hamalawy turned the tables on Egyptian security, saying the arrest was evidence of its own deception. “The mukhabarat is trying to pull together a cheap move, so that any public criticism against the military would be depicted immediately as the work of Israeli spies,” he wrote on the website 3Arabawy. “More important, the mukhabarat is trying to convince the public it’s a vital agency, in charge of protecting the country from any ‘foreign plots.’”
Whether Grapel was aware of the broader crosscurrents remains unclear. He grew up in New York and studied international relations at Johns Hopkins University before moving to Israel in 2004 and enlisting in the army. Wounded by shrapnel during Israel’s war with Hezbullah in the summer of 2006, Grapel’s name comes up in newspaper accounts of the war. He later moved back to the U.S. to attend law school at Emory in Atlanta. Now on break between his second and third year, Grapel told friends that he was spending the summer in Egypt working for a refugee settlement group.
Activists say Egyptian security agents had kept a watchful eye on foreigners attending protests in recent months. After noticing Grapel, agents apparently followed him for several weeks before making the arrest. Among the evidence citied against him in Egyptians newspapers was the fact that he had three cell phones and a laptop computer. His mother, Irene Grapel, said in news interviews that her son went to Egypt to improve his Arabic.