The arrest of an American-Israeli student in Egypt on what appears to be trumped-up charges of spying for Israel could be dismissed as just another Middle East conspiracy story. But it could also be the latest indication of how that crucial Arab country is shifting away from moderation toward confrontation with Israel and the West.
Ilan Grapel, a student who has served in the IDF, appears to be an innocent caught up in the ferment of post-Mubarak Egypt. He is an unlikely candidate for espionage, and it is hoped his U.S. passport will ensure his safety and eventual release. But the decision of the Egyptian security services to not only arrest Grapel but to portray him as part of a vast Mossad conspiracy speaks to the willingness of the new government in Cairo to pander to anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic stereotypes as it scrambles to fend off challenges from the Muslim Brotherhood.
Grapel is not the first visitor to Egypt to run afoul of the tendency for Egyptian intelligence to indulge in the national paranoia about Israel. The Mubarak regime stoked the fires of anti-Semitism in Egyptian culture in order to provide an outlet for anger about its own repressive practices. But in the wake of Cairo’s decision to open the border with Gaza and diplomatic outreach to Iran, this “spy” case is just the latest indication of the troubling direction Egypt may be heading.
It is to be expected Egypt’s military is still desirous of both maintaining the flow of U.S. aid and to keep the peace with Israel. But the question is whether they can limit the anti-Western orientation of the country’s politics or whether, like the “Arab Spring” protests that ousted their former leader, it will spin out of their control.