Marking the first anniversary of Mubarak’s downfall, some Egyptians laud the historic achievement while others remain apprehensive. But one Israeli-American whose name will forever be linked with post-Mubarak Egypt is not celebrating.
Nearly four months after being released from an Egyptian prison, Ilan Grapel says the military regime that ordered his arrest is no different from Mubarak’s.
“I found that the ‘glorious’ Egyptian revolution was’t so glorious,” he says. “The revolution is almost irrelevant without serious introspection. The Egyptians are focusing on superficial issues, like their relations with Israel.”
“The goal of the military is to maintain power,” he continues. “They got rid of Mubarak as a sacrificial lamb and used my arrest to place themselves in opposition to Israel, for public consumption.”
A second-year law student in Atlanta, Grapel spent the summer of 2011 in Cairo, working for an NGO that aids refugees from Iraq and Sudan. One June morning, Egyptian security agents came knocking on his hostel door.
“I was taken to Egypt’s State Security building, where the prosecutor read out a formula accusing me of spying for a foreign state and harming Egyptian interests. He asked me if I could deny the allegations.”
Grapel says he immediately thought of Azzam Azzam, an Israeli Druze citizen imprisoned in Egypt for eight years on charges of espionage.
Two weeks of intensive interrogations followed, in which Grapel says he was questioned for eight hours a day on issues as benign as Israel’s history and religion or as thorny as the revolution under way in Egypt.
‘Certain members of Knesset said I had no business being in Egypt. They believe that if you talk to Arabs you’re a leftist’
Once, Grapel took advantage of the prosecutor’s absence from the investigation room to leaf through a heavy book sitting on the table that contained Egypt’s emergency laws.
“When the prosecutor came back, he violently shut the book and wouldn’t let me look at it.”
Grapel tried to keep the atmosphere during interrogations “jovial,” however, believing that humor would buttress his plea of innocence. Despite being advised by an American diplomat to maintain a serious demeanor, Grapel would often joke with his Egyptian interrogators, referring to himself as a “Baltagy,” or government thug.
One of his interrogators was a veiled woman who spoke fluent Hebrew and was considered an Israel expert. She was kind to him, he says, and he hopes to meet her again one day.
As an American-Israeli in Egypt, Grapel stood out: he spoke Arabic, taught Hebrew, and befriended Islamist and liberal Egyptians alike. His close friends knew he was also an Israeli citizen, but he hid that fact from others.
“I didn’t always want to debate or be an amateur Israeli ambassador,” he says.
After his arrest, Grapel’s Egyptian acquaintances “disappeared,” with the exception of one man who rushed to the local media to explain that he was duped by “the Israeli spy.”
“He was clever,” says Grapel.
‘If Palestinians had attacked me on the way to Rachel’s Tomb no one would criticize me for the cost to Israel for retribution, judicially and militarily. There is a double standard’
Soft-spoken and somewhat shy, Grapel notes that the toughest part of his ordeal was solitary confinement.
“There are forms of physical torture which would have been more bearable,” he says, adding that solitary confinement should be internationally recognized as a form of torture. “I would have preferred to do five years knowing I would get out eventually rather than five months not knowing.”
Grapel was held in seclusion for his entire five-month incarceration, with only monthly visits by American diplomats and interrogators from the Egyptian intelligence (Mukhabarat). Blindfolded when transported, Grapel does not know to this day where he was held.
The only solace came from books, sent to him by his congressman, Gary Ackerman. Ackerman insisted on driving Grapel home to Queens, New York, upon his return to the United States last October.
From an apartment in Atlanta where he is completing his third year of law school, Grapel is trying to figure out why it was the Israelis, not the Americans, who finalized the deal for his release.
“This was no accident. It was the Israelis who remained behind the scenes and had negotiators on the ground. Though I am sure there are facets of the deal that are unknown to me,” he says. Leaving jail, Grapel was greeted by Member of Knesset Israel Hasson and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s special envoy Yitzhak Molcho. The two escorted him back to Tel Aviv, where his mother was waiting.
But alongside his appreciation for the Israeli diplomacy that enabled his release, Grapel, a former paratrooper in the IDF, feels he was treated unfairly by some segments of Israeli society and certain right-wing politicians, whom he would not name.
“Certain members of Knesset said I had no business being in Egypt. They believe that if you talk to Arabs you’re considered a leftist,” he says. “But if Palestinians had attacked me on the way to Rachel’s Tomb no one would criticize me for the cost to Israel for retribution, judicially and militarily. There is a double standard.”
This summer, Grapel plans to start working on a book in which he will “juxtapose his personal story with the geopolitical backdrop.” He wants to research the close working relations between the Israeli and Egyptian security apparatuses that exist that exist, he says, due to “mutual interests and common enemies” despite what he calls “the Egyptian antipathy on the popular level” toward Israel.
‘Though it would be unlikely for an educated American citizen to fall victim of the American justice system, there are distinct parallels between the injustices I suffered in Egypt and those faced by America’s underprivileged’
For now, he is volunteering with the Georgia Innocence Project, assisting those unjustly imprisoned, like himself.
“Though it would be unlikely for an educated American citizen to fall victim of the American justice system, there are distinct parallels between the injustices I suffered in Egypt and those faced by America’s underprivileged,” he wrote in The Atlanta Lawyer journal this month.
I ask Grapel if he intends to return to Egypt, a country he so loved and which he frequented numerous times before. He laughs. “That’s not an option. In their parting words they said, ‘don’t bother applying for a visa.'”