Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

Mob Tactics

Egypt captured Israeli-American Ilan Grapel to generate popular support among the volatile anti-Western middle class at home

Print Email
Ilan Grapel in Tahrir Square. (Facebook)

Headlines this week may be fixated on Libya’s embrace of Sharia law and Islamists’ electoral victory in Tunisia, but if you really want to gauge what the Arab Spring has wrought, forget about the drama in Tunis and Tripoli. Consider instead the unfolding story of 27-year-old Ilan Grapel, an Israeli-American law student who has been held on charges of espionage for the past four months in Cairo.

Yesterday Israel approved a deal, seemingly hastened by the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap, which will free Grapel in exchange for 25 Egyptian prisoners. And if all goes according to plan, Grapel will be released Thursday. Some former U.S. intelligence officials believe Grapel may really have been an Israeli spy, but Israeli soldiers, never mind the Jewish state’s clandestine agents, are seldom returned alive. The Egyptians know he’s not a spy, but he’s a valuable card anyway, which is why they captured him. It is logic and behavior befitting a terrorist organization.

If Hamas and Hezbollah can get the Zionist entity to release their associates, the thinking goes, why can’t Egypt’s interim ruling body, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, do the same for Egyptian prisoners? The problem in the Middle East, then, isn’t that the Islamists are on the verge of taking over and thereby transforming Arab societies. The problem is that these societies are already governed by the passions that make the Islamists so popular.

Longtime U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak, the former president of Egypt, would not have dreamed of taking an American citizen hostage. It’s true that things have changed in Egypt, but let’s not overstate the case: Grapel’s arrest is not a sign that the Supreme Council of Armed Forces is joining hands with Iranian-backed terror organizations. The purpose of the exchange, from Cairo’s perspective, is to placate the mobs that have already laid siege to the Israeli embassy, burned Coptic churches, and may in time cause even worse problems for the ruling military council. The way to calm the situation, they believe, is to show that Egypt’s problems are manufactured by the West, and that Cairo’s ever-competent rulers managed to unearth a plot before the foreigners could once again unleash their mayhem.

Why Cairo chose Grapel as its test case seems to be merely a matter of convenience. Yes, the Queens native served in the Israeli Defense Forces in the 2006 war, where he was injured fighting Hezbollah. Yet the fact that Grapel, a law student at Emory University in Atlanta, had taken a job in Cairo in May with St. Andrew’s Refugee Services, a Christian organization that mostly provides legal aid for Sudanese refugees, is perhaps what first attracted the attention of Egyptian authorities. African refugees—Christians and Muslims—are a sensitive issue for the Egyptians, not least because their mistreatment in Egypt has caused many of them to flee to friendlier vistas across the border in Israel.

While some believe the Shalit deal set the precedent for the Grapel exchange, it’s a mistake to see the two cases in the same light. For Israel, the point of freeing a thousand prisoners in exchange for one is not merely a moral calculation, but also a form of strategic communication intended to dishearten Israel’s foes. The message it sends is not only that Israel values life above all, but that the Jewish state can afford to put its enemies back on the street because in the end, no matter how numerous, those enemies have no chance of winning.

The Grapel deal is something else—straight-up extortion with domestic political benefits. For Egypt, getting prisoners released for Grapel is more like Libya winning intelligence agent Abdelbasset al-Megrahi’s freedom from the Scottish government as part of an oil deal in 2009, or Iran’s kidnapping three American hikers and accusing them of espionage two years ago. Here the point is to face down the West publicly, and generate popular support at home. The message is: Western actors are trying to sabotage the people of the Middle East, but the ruling authorities are proud heroes of resistance who have exposed the designs of the imperialist or Zionist oppressors and have made them publicly pay for their crimes.

The Egyptian army probably didn’t want to get into this game of political extortion, but with Mubarak’s downfall it became necessary to win the affections of a very demanding audience: Egypt’s middle-class urban youth, a constituency to whom Mubarak never paid much attention, which is precisely what led to his demise. The Obama Administration believed that Mubarak’s exit would have little effect on an Egyptian political system still dominated by an army dependent on $1.3 billion in American military aid each year, but the problem should now be as obvious to the White House as it was to the Egyptian military from the outset. As angry as the army was at Mubarak for trying to install his son in the presidential palace, it also understood it was dangerous to give the mob a de facto veto that would allow it to shape the Egyptian political system however it saw fit.

That vision, unfortunately, is very popular in the Muslim-majority Middle East. It’s generally anti-Israeli and anti-American, to be sure, but Israel and the United States are details in a larger architecture of resentment of the West.

Hatred of the West, and of its local proxies, has been a central part of political Islam’s program from the outset. The Muslim Brotherhood was formed in 1928 in the midst of Great Britain’s 72-year-old occupation of Egypt. But long before London took an active role in Egyptian politics, 18th- and 19th-century Muslim intellectuals and activists counseled the masses to be suspicious of the West. Take their science and technology, they advised, but forgo the West’s secular values, which undermine you and your faith.

Today, those who advocate for engagement with Islamists argue that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Tunisia’s Nahda Party have matured and are now willing to play by the rules and act like democrats. The Islamists may not like the West, but they have no choice but to uphold agreements and partake in the international system. On the other side of the debate, skeptics fear that the Islamists are talking out of both sides of their mouth, and once in office they’ll never willingly forsake power. But both of these arguments miss the point.

Yes, Islamism is already turning out to be the most powerful political current across the region. But the attraction of Islamism is not simply that it appeals to conservative and traditional Muslim societies, but that it draws freely on the sources of resentment that have been part of the political language of the region for more than two centuries. It was not Egypt’s Islamists who led the charge against the Israeli embassy in September, but young and nominally secular Egyptians. And it is that mob, potentially in the many millions, with whom Egypt’s ruling body was currying favor when it arrested Grapel.

Print Email

Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180

Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.

Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.

We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.

Charles Norrie says:

The argument about a Magrahi/ BP oil deal in nonsense.

Magrahi was released by the Scottish Government and the BP oil deal was brokered by the UK government. Magrahi was specifically excluded from the UK wide PTA agreement with Libya.

The Scottish government and the UK government were politically opposed at the time, so no deal was done. Why can’t you people get your facts right?

Bill Pearlman says:

This was extortion and the Scotts released the Libyan because of oil. No other explanation is plausible

To Charles:
1) Scotland is not an independent country. It is part of the UK and does not conduct foreign policy
2) BP belongs to the British government
Why can’t you get your facts right?

sharon says:

Sad to say about the “Arab Spring”, it was “better the devil you know”.

Judith Nusbaum says:

Who is Ilan Grapel? Is he just a college student? Does he have a more involved history than that which being reported by the media?

davidr says:

“But the attraction of Islamism is not simply that it appeals to conservative and traditional Muslim societies, but that it draws freely on the sources of resentment that have been part of the political language of the region for more than two centuries.”

This argument, too, misses the point. Indeed Islam, and its texts and tenets, IS the source of the anti-Western/anti-Jewish political language in the region. Mainstream Islam has supplied not only the vocabulary but the basis for that resentment against infidels of all stripes. As such, Islamists are simply drawing on doctrine that, unlike e.g. democratic pluralism and separation of church and state, has been inculcated in these populations from childhood and is utterly recognizable and familiar.

Lynne T says:


I’m not sure the Scots need Libyan oil though the Brits do. There’s offshore oil driling in the North Sea and at least nuclear power station located on the Scottish coast so they are pretty much energy independent.

Bill Pearlman says:

Lynne, Scotland doesn’t work by itself in these things. But if they did then it means they have a soft spot for guys that bomb airlines. Could be possible. After all its been a long time since 1945 and 1918 when they were men and not rabbits.

of course, Ilan was stupid to go to egypt.

that stupidity is nothing in comparison with the stupidity of the Israeli govt.

and, more staggering than that is the contemptible cynicism and demogoguery of the egyptian military junta.

after the attack on Lara Logan, the arrest of Ilan Grapel, the attack on the Israeli embassy, the orgy of anti-Jewish hate in Cairo, in the egyptian media and elsewhere, etc. one would have to be a moron to travel to egypt. miss the pyramids, save your life.

Redwod509 says:

The writer coul mention that the former red barrets, parachoot is off the reservation, going to Cairo to hang out like some whaky groupy of OWS. Cairo is no place for a Jew to hang out. Even for Lefties from Tel-Aviv, Cairo is No-No! He is a bit of a mental case, because I cannot remember too many Israelis, getting themselves in this kind of predicament. He was no spy, just a tradeable commodity. Leftists have this inflated idea that they can go anywhere and say what they like because people will like them. It did not work too well. I attribute his capture to misguided American education and too much time among the fold of Tel-Aviv lefties. A certified meshoogener!

“Arab Spring” (or is it more “Arabic Summer”), what kind of government will rule these countries now? I doubt that they are democratic. Gaddafi deposed and now open the doors at the entrance of Islamic law, and terrorists, disguised in the “Arab Spring” and governments much worse than dictatorships that were there. The same will happen with Syria when they have finished with this scheme,who will rule? Sharia. North Africa will be conquered by Muslim radicals.

Lee Smith as usual has enough personal hysteria, rampant paranoia, and half insane Islamophobia coming out of his ears to perhaps require the services of a mental health professional…

Dani ben Leb says:

As usual Egyptian paranoia trumps anything else in sight, including the Sahara.

Eliyahu Konn says:

” but that the Jewish state can afford to put its enemies back on the street because in the end, no matter how numerous, those enemies have no chance of winning.” But Israel’s enemies are winning! No one can afford this price! Tell that to the next victims and families of any of the these murderers set free. This deal is the exact same thing and that is why it looks the same.

this article can help to me personally,thank u.


Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

Mob Tactics

Egypt captured Israeli-American Ilan Grapel to generate popular support among the volatile anti-Western middle class at home

More on Tablet:

From the Mekong to Maryland

By Hillel Kuttler — After the fall of Saigon, a Baltimore synagogue helped 15 Vietnamese become Americans