Egypt has asked for the release of dozens of Egyptians in Israeli prisons in exchange for one Israeli 'spy' now in Egyptian custody, Ilan Grapel.
Grapel, a 27-year-old law student at Emory University and a dual U.S.-Israeli citizen, was arrested on espionage charges by the Egyptians in June.
According to reports in the Egyptian and Israeli media, the Egyptians presented a demand for the prisoners' release to U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta during his visit to Cairo last week. Panetta had asked for Grapel's release but was rebuffed. On Sept. 5, prior to Panetta's visit, an Egyptian court ruled that Grapel should be held another 45 days while the prosecution continues to investigate his case.
Grapel, who was wounded while serving in the Israeli army during the 2006 Lebanon war, was in Egypt working for a non-profit agency. He documented his travels on Facebook, also posting pictures of himself in his Israel Defense Force uniform. His family has insisted that he is innocent, and skeptics have noted that for an alleged Mossad secret agent, he seemed shaky on the concept of "secret."
In an interview on Israeli radio earlier this year, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that Grapel was "perhaps a little strange or a little careless," but was just a student. "He has no connection to any intelligence apparatus, not in Israel, not in the U.S. and not on Mars."
The U.S. State Department said that "U.S. Embassy officials in Cairo continue to monitor the case and will provide consular assistance," but referred questions about the particulars of the Grapel case to the Egyptian government.
Egypt is also currently trying a Jordanian telecommunications engineer and an Israeli citizen for spying. The Jordanian, Bashar Ibrahim abu-Zaid, was arrested in April and accused of collecting intelligence for Mossad. He has pled not guilty. The Israeli, alleged Mossad agent Ofir Harrari, was not arrested and is being tried in absentia.
Both Harrari and Zaid allegedly opened telecommunications companies that would monitor Egyptian communications. Harrari allegedly gave Zaid the job of hiring Egyptians for the companies and tracking Egyptian phone calls. Zaid has denied spying and said he was unaware of Harrari's nationality.
The respected Egyptian paper al-Ahram had also reported in August that the men were part of a plot by Mossad to sell haircare products in Egypt that would render Egyptians infertile. "According to the public prosecutor's office's investigation," wrote al-Ahram, "Mossad agent Ofir Harrari, instructed Jordanian Ibrahim abu-Zaid to set up a company in Egypt which would exclusively important an Israeli hair product, for both men and women, which causes infertility."
The men face charges for the alleged telecommunications plot, not the alleged haircare conspiracy, but prosecutors repeated the accusation about the haircare products in their opening statements. The trial adjourned after a closed session on Sunday, but resumes on Oct. 16.
While several improbable stories about Israeli espionage have surfaced since the uprising that toppled Mubarak, they did not originate with the Arab spring. Stories about Israelis poisoning chewing gum, fruits and vegetables circulated in the 1990s, and last December, prior to the uprising, an Egyptian official suggested that the Israelis were sending sharks to attack tourists in Sharm al-Sheikh to disrupt tourism.
"Conspiracy theories are a big part of our culture," explained Dr. Hani Henry, an assistant professor of psychology at the American University in Cairo. Claims about Israel are especially easy for Egyptians to swallow, said Henry, because of the history of war between the two nations, and because Mossad has engaged in elaborate and lethal spy operations in multiple countries.