Back in February, as pro-democracy protests raged against president Hosni Mubarak in Tahrir Square, Egyptian state television stirred up mob animosity by reporting that “Israeli spies” had infiltrated Cairo disguised as foreign journalists. This government-sanctioned announcement resulted in the counterintuitive phenomenon of Al Jazeera reporters being assaulted by Arab gangs shouting yehudi! ("Jew!")
What Israel’s putative spies hoped to learn in Cairo that couldn’t be gleaned from a well-tended Twitter feed was never fully explained. Their presence seemed as much speculative as concrete; an actual Israeli spy was as hard to come by among the demonstrators as an unmolested blonde. But four months—and one regime change—later, Egyptian authorities are claiming to have captured their first interloper from Jerusalem.
The so-called clandestine operative is Ilan Grapel, a 27-year-old dual U.S.-Israeli citizen and summer intern with Cairo’s Saint Andrew’s Refugee Services. The third-year law student at Atlanta’s Emory University has been arrested. He is accused of provoking conflicts between Muslims and Christians (if true, what a superhuman success!) and influencing young people to clash with the military (something the “spy” must have done right after inventing the Internet).
What kind of espionage professional adopts Ilan’s discipline of broadcasting his every move on a Facebook page?
Grapel, the official story contends, was captured "with three cell phones containing top-secret information that could be politically harmful for Egypt in the wrong hands." More harmful, in the wrong hands, than a basic Twitter feed?
Grapel’s defenders include his mother. She scoffs at the notion her son was an agent of the Mossad (Israel’s CIA). After all, what kind of espionage professional adopts Ilan’s discipline of broadcasting his every move on a Facebook page?
“No doubt an extremely crafty one,” replies Egypt’s counterintelligence team (in a purely imaginary interview with TakePart). After all, the suspect matches four of eHow.com’s six signs of How to Spot a Spy: Grapel is between 25 and 40 years old, he’s a college graduate, he has a military background and, as a law student, he must be very good at logic.
Extenuating the evidence of the all-knowing eHow, it must be noted that—like the four American hikers Iran has detained on espionage charges for more than 22 months, and like Current TV journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling who were released by the intervention of former president Bill Clinton after being sentenced to 12 years hard labor for the “grave” crime of wandering along North Korea’s border—Grapel has exhibited an idealistic, perhaps naïve, taste for adventuring in the domain of a paranoid, insular military regime that is threatened by dissent at home and confronted by suspicion in the world community at large.
An apparent lapse in situational awareness and disregard for his own bodily safety may well be the worst charges Egypt, or anyone, can bring against Ilan Grapel. Granted, Israel is no doubt attempting to obtain information and to influence circumstances in Egypt by secret methods. And Egypt, unless the country’s security arm is hopelessly over-tasked keeping tabs on its own citizens, is certainly launching and monitoring schemes on Israel. So, contrary to what looks like a lot of commonsense, let’s say that Ilan Grapel is a spy. What harm could he do to Egypt beyond what it is already doing to itself?