Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

EGYPT-ISRAEL: Spy Trial’s Sexy Revelations Mask Diplomatic Crisis

Deborah Horan

CAIRO, Aug 27 1997 (IPS) - It has all the ingredients of a spicy spy novel. There’s the beautiful seductress luring her innocent victim into compromising his country’s security, the evil accomplices, the titillating image of ladies’ underwear marked with invisible ink.

The case of Azam Azam, the Israeli-Arab accused of spying against Egypt, has captivated Egyptians with its juicy revelations ever since the 44-year-old textile worker was arrested in Cairo in November 1996.

But the allegations of espionage have also brought Egypt’s relations with Israel to their lowest point since the two countries made peace in 1979. A guilty verdict has the potential to do even more damage. The verdict is expected on Aug. 31.

The case centres on allegations that Emad Ismail, an Egyptian school teacher, conspired with Azam to spy on Egypt by obtaining sensitive industrial secrets and passing them on to two Israeli- Arab women.

The two women, also of Israel’s Druze community, fled to Israel after Azam and Ismail were arrested. They are being tried in absentia.

The prosecution alleges that Azam, who worked in one of the industrial satellite villages near Cairo, stole industrial secrets and gave them to Ismail using invisible ink on women’s underwear. Ismail then allegedly passed the lingerie on to the Israeli women.

Azam’s attorney, Farid al-Deeb, said in court last week that Azam’s fate was tied to the verdict in Ismail’s trial, which is also expected Aug. 31. Prosecutors are basing that case on a confession that Ismail says he was tricked into signing.

The two defendants have appeared in court in cages similar to those used to keep Islamist militant defendants from escaping. Israeli diplomats have attended the trial since it began in April. Israel has accused Egypt of fabricating the allegations for political reasons.

Since Azam’s arrest, the Israeli and Egyptian press have focused on different aspects of the trial and the accusations. While the Israeli press routinely mocks the invisible ink charges, the Egyptian media portrays Azam as a spy.

“People here believe he is a spy because all their source of information is the Egyptian media and the media is unanimous that he is a spy,” said Saad el-Din Ibrahim, an Egyptian sociologist at the American University of Cairo.

And while the Israeli press has focused largely on whether Azam can receive a fair trial in Egypt and on the more subtle issue of whether the Israeli government has put enough effort into aiding a non-Jewish member of Israel’s small Druze community, the Egyptian press has focused on and often condemned Al-Deeb for defending Azam.

“He could be a spy,” said Ibrahim. “But whether he is or not, one thing I do not agree with is the attacks against the lawyers who are defending him.”

A guilty verdict is likely to sour the atmosphere between Israel and Egypt at a time when a new U.S. initiative to move Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table gains momentum.

U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright is expected in Israel in September to push the second leg of an initiative that began with U.S. pressure on Palestinian president Yasser Arafat to renew security ties with Israel following a double suicide bombing July 30.

Albright is expected to push Israel to stop building housing in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza and to focus on the need for an airport, a harbour in Gaza and a ‘safe passage’ that will allow Palestinians to travel between the self-rule areas in Gaza and the West Bank.

Palestinians desperately need the concessions, promised by Israel in peace agreements, to ease the economic hardship caused by repeated Israeli-imposed security measures that have stifled the movement of goods and people in the two areas.

Egypt had played a major role in trying to bridge the gap between Israelis and Palestinians. Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak met with Arafat Monday to discuss the latest efforts to get the peace process moving again.

Talks broke down in March after Israel began building a new Jewish housing project in an area of Jerusalem claimed by Palestinians as part of their future capital in the city. It received a further blow with the July bombing, which killed 16, including two unidentified bombers.

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