The subtle shades of foreign interference

Mona Anis , Thursday 30 Jun 2011

When does solidarity with a cause cross over into meddling, or delusions of self-importance cross over into interference? The cases of Ilan Grapel and Tom MacMaster, though different, provide food for thought

Last week, I mentioned that the arrest of a suspected Israeli spy in Cairo and the revelation that the alleged Syrian lesbian blogger was a fictitious character created by an American man had set me wondering about the fine lines that divide academic interest in a specific region and espionage.

The connection between the two is that both had research interests in the Middle East and that both seemed to have pursued their interests with passion, though, at least at the outset, they seem to have differed in their ideological premises: one is clearly a Zionist, while the other says he is pro-Palestinian.

Ilan Grapel, the suspected Israeli spy, who is also an American citizen, has been an ardent supporter of Israel, we are told, since his college years in a prestigious US university, Johns Hopkins. Commenting on Grapel's arrest in Cairo two weeks ago, a university colleague of his wrote that “it is quite plausible that he was indeed motivated by nothing other than pro-Israel romanticism.” 

Explaining the atmosphere at Johns Hopkins in 2004, Grapel's colleague argued that “I don't think that bragging about wanting to join the Israeli army some day was remarkable back then or even now. There were a couple of kids I knew who had aspirations to go to the Middle East in the future to learn Arabic, to help ‘understand the enemy,’ in hopes of being of some use to Israeli society.”

On the other hand, the author of the fictitious blog, Tom MacMaster, had told Asa'd Abu Khalil in an interview published on his blog The Angry Arab that he was anti-Zionist and that his best friend was a Palestinian who had encouraged him to “try and come up with a novel that would as powerfully present the point of view of the Arabs of the Levant and that might replace things like Exodus as the literary touchstone of the Palestine conflict.”

Their ideological differences notwithstanding, they both seem to have had no problem with employing deception to achieve their aims, regardless of how different these aims might have been. Deception is the stock-in-trade of spying in both the wider and the narrower sense of the term, and both men are guilty of pretending to be what they were not.

One important distinction, however, between Grapel and MacMaster is that the latter was content with writing from the comfort zone of his study in Edinburgh, while the former coupled his words (and I have read a pro-Israeli propaganda article by him in the Australian) with action, whether that action was enlisting in the Israeli army and fighting Israel's wars in Arab lands, or coming to Egypt to mingle with the protesters in Tahrir Square for some obscure purpose that we hope will be revealed by the legal investigation currently underway.

Both actions, however, are acts of intrusion onto a foreign reality, one which only Western colonialist mentality — perhaps also American — is capable of contemplating. As As'ad Abu Khalil noted in his interview with MacMaster, the idea behind the Damascus lesbian blog “smacks of classical themes of Orientalism, especially sexual Orientalism.” 

If MacMaster's act smacks of the Orientalist mentality typical of the old colonialists, Grapel was a soldier in the army of the one remaining settler colonialist country in the world, Israel. The wonder is that with such a background he seems not to have known how unpopular the Israelis are in Egypt, assuming that no Egyptian would suspect his motives in joining the protests. 

One sad by-product of the actions of MacMaster and Grapel is that they offer the corrupt regimes of the region, desperate to remain in power, with an opportunity to manufacture fear and xenophobia.

Foreign threats, real or illusory, have always been summoned up as a justification for rallying behind unpopular regimes. It's a tactic that was recently employed in Egypt in the days preceding the overthrow of Mubarak.

Fortunately, the ugly xenophobia directed at foreign journalists covering the uprising, and unleashed no doubt by the security forces, did not last for long.

However, I should point out that in talking about manufacturing xenophobia I am distinguishing between an unjustified fear of foreigners and the legitimate anti-Israeli sentiments emanating from the threat Israel poses to the security of the region. The Israeli threat to Arab national security is something that most Arabs, Egyptians included, take seriously.

It was the attempt to claim that this alleged spy had been influencing events in Tahrir Square that elicited ridicule, rather than the fact that Israel has an elaborate network of spies across the Arab world.

Egyptians were quick to note that if Israelis can travel freely in the country, it's thanks to the Mubarak regime and its subservience to Israel, one of the reasons why the regime had become increasingly unpopular.

I would like to conclude this piece by mentioning a now departed friend, who was the opposite of everything that people like Grapel and MacMaster, in their abuse of knowledge and research, stand for.

Jean-Pierre Thieck was a French national who came to Cairo in the early 1970s to work on the Egyptian national movement of 1946.

He registered in Cairo University's History Department and worked under the supervision of the department's chair at the time, Mohamed Anis. When the student uprising of 1972 took place, Jean-Pierre provided numerous services to the dissident students, including sending the movement’s documentation aboard, something that landed him in trouble with the Egyptian authorities.

He was an exemplary model of an intellectual and researcher who employed his knowledge and love for the Arab region in the service of the just causes of its people. In 1975, he completed his PhD, entitled La journée du 21 février 1946 dans l'histoire du mouvement national égyptien, and in the 1980s he lived in Syria and worked on a second major research project, Décentralisation ottomane et affirmation urbaine à Alep à la fin du XVIIIe siècle.

Later he moved to Turkey and while there, during one of the difficult periods of that country's history, he wrote for Le Monde under the nom du plume of Michel Farrere. His premature death in 1990 deprived Arab and Ottoman studies of one of its most promising scholars and his friends of a dedicated and exuberant human being.

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