CAIRO: Long normalized but still tense relations between Egypt and Israel hit a potential snag with the announcement on Saturday that an Egyptian had been arrested inside Egypt, charged with spying for Israel.
Three Israeli intelligence officers were also charged and warrants issued for their arrest, though they remain outside of Egypt.
While the reports on Mohammed Essam Ghoneim el-Attar, a former student at al-Azhar University, read with peculiar details suited for a spy story – he assumed a fake name and residence in Canada, was employed in a bank by Israel, and operated out of Canada and Turkey, where he also allegedly acted as a spy recruiter – he is not the first spy to go to extraordinary lengths to obtain covert information either for Cairo or Tel Aviv.
El-Attar s arrest and related events of the last decade and a half suggest that it s mistaken to think that the days of high-stakes, inter-state espionage in the Middle East ended with the Cold War, even if some of the more daring, and bizarre, secret agent tactics exist in that bygone era.
Spying between peace partners, if even it is a cold peace, is not unusual, it seems, if we are to glean anything from the recent history of Egypt and Israel snooping around within each other’s borders.
The most well-known case in recent memory is that of Azzam Azzam, an Israeli Druze textile worker arrested in Cairo in November 1996, accused of “industrial espionage related to an Egyptian factory and the Israel textile plant that employed him.
He allegedly sent information about Egyptian industrial cities to Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, via secret messages in invisible ink written on women’s underwear.
Azzam was sentenced to 15 years in prison by a state security court on the charge of acting as an intermediary between Mossad and an Egyptian accomplice, Emad Abdel-Hamid Ismail, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Egypt released Azzam in 2004, after serving eight years of his sentence.
Late last year, Haaretz reported that Azzam was suing his former employer, the textile company Tefron, for millions of shekels for ignoring its responsibilities toward him and abandoning him wounded on the battlefield.
In 1964, Time magazine reported on the arrest in Egypt of Frowald Hüttenmeister, a German graduate student who began working for Israeli intelligence out of apparent guilt over Nazi atrocities.
Hüttenmeister was trained in cryptology in an Israel spy school in Paris before being sent to Cairo to pick up microfilm from a Sudanese clerk who turned out be a double agent for Egypt.
Hüttenmeister was not given a death sentence but ten years hard labor and a $2,500 fine in view of the defendant s youth and inexperience, and in appreciation of the cooperation of German scientists in Egypt, as Time magazine reported then.
Of course, invisible ink on undergarments in the 1990s and novice German-Israeli spies still do not compare to an Armenian agent in the 1960s, around the time of Hüttenmeister’s arrest, which was sent undercover into Israel by Egypt.
How undercover? The agent not only produced a full set of ancestral documents to disguise himself as Jewish, but was even circumcised.