When a man falls to his death from a balcony, some cynics wonder: was he pushed? When that man happens to be the most infamous spy in the history of the modern Middle East, it’s the first question on everyone’s lips.
On 27 June the body of Ashraf Marwan was found on the pavement below his flat in Carlton House Terrace, one of London’s most expensive streets, which overlooks the Mall and St James’s Park. Marwan was an astonishingly well-connected Egyptian, the son-in-law of the late Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian president and hero of pan-Arabism, and the consigliere of Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat. After Sadat’s assassination in 1981 he moved to London where he quickly established himself as a key player in the business world, in particular as an ally of Tiny Rowland in his bitter struggle with Mohamed Al Fayed over the ownership of Harrods. He was thought to have a personal fortune of £100 million.
But Marwan’s business dealings are only a small part of his story. The real drama came in October 1973 when he warned Israel that Egypt and Syria might attack, just hours before the Yom Kippur war began. Marwan was a Mossad agent, but he may also have been an Egyptian double agent. And the great unsolved mystery of Marwan’s life and, perhaps, the key to understanding his death is whether, when he warned Israel, he was acting as a Mossad agent or to preserve his credibility as a double agent, thinking that he was leaving Israel too little time to prepare for war.
Marwan had volunteered to work for Mossad in 1969 and the then president’s son-in-law became one of the agency’s most important spies. After Sadat succeeded Nasser Marwan became an even more pivotal figure in Egypt, but he continued to help Mossad. He apparently warned Israel that in May 1973 it would be attacked, a tip-off that prompted Israel to mobilise. But no attack came. Then, on 5 October 1973 in a meeting he had requested with the director of Mossad, Marwan disclosed that an attack would be launched on Israel the next evening. The assault began the next day at two in the afternoon.
The initial hours of the war are the nearest that Israel has ever come to being destroyed by Arab arms; and it rattled Israel’s national confidence. Eli Zeira, then head of Israeli military intelligence, was blamed and consequently lost his job and left the army. Zeira did not take this well. He brooded over how and why the legendary Israeli security establishment could have failed, and he came to the conclusion that it had been duped. In Myth Versus Reality, a book first published in 1993, Zeira argued that a double agent had been responsible for Israel’s failure to see the war coming.
It wasn’t difficult to work out who Zeira thought this double agent might be. Ahron Bregman, an Israeli historian, deduced Marwan’s identity after talking to Zeira’s editor and began dropping hints in books and articles. In 2002 Marwan responded with an outright denial in an Egyptian newspaper. Bregman then challenged Marwan to prove that he wasn’t the agent in question. News of the spat was reported in the Israeli press and so for the first time Marwan was named as a spy in Israel.
Now comes the plot twist that even the most audacious writer of fiction might balk at: Marwan made contact with Bregman and the two men met in person for the first time, on 23 October 2003 at the Intercontinental Hotel in Park Lane. Bregman recalls that Marwan asked him for his help in writing a book called October 1973 — What Happened. However, Bregman does not think that this was Marwan’s principal reason for meeting him.
Zvi Zamir, the head of Mossad at the time of the Yom Kippur war, had claimed that Zeira had leaked Marwan’s name, and fingered him as the double agent. Zeira served a libel writ in 2004 and the matter was sent to arbitration. Marwan was keeping a nervous eye on the result of the case and Bregman thinks that, ‘What Marwan really wanted me to do for him — and this was clear — was to keep an eye on developments in Israel regarding this case. He needed to know about such developments in order to plan his next moves.’ Such as whether he could travel to Egypt or not. Bregman recalls that after this meeting Marwan ‘would often phone to ask general questions about the Israeli–Egyptian war of 1973 and about new books on the subject and so on. But there would always be the “side question”, regarding his case in Israel.’
Eventually, a few weeks before Marwan’s death, Theodore Or, a former Israeli Supreme Court Justice, dismissed the suit and concluded that Zeira had revealed Marwan’s identity. For an Israeli judge to decide against Zeira cast doubt on the whole double agent thesis and suggested that Marwan might have been just a Mossad spy after all.
Bregman sent Marwan press clippings about Or’s decision. On 26 June this year the two men agreed to meet the next day; it would have been only the second time they had met in person. Bregman has no doubt that Marwan was sincere about these plans: ‘it was clear to me when we talked on the 26th that there’s going to be a meeting. He very carefully wrote down my office telephone number and asked to repeat it, and he then repeated it himself; then asked for my mobile number and wrote it down carefully (he had it anyway).’ Several times on 27 June Bregman popped up from his office to get mobile reception to see if Marwan had called. But Marwan was busy, meeting his maker.
So we still don’t know whether Marwan was a double agent. Some of the events after his death seem to suggest that he was: he was buried in Egypt with the president’s son in attendance and Hosni Mubarak, the current president, went out of his way to praise him
as a ‘great patriot’ and claimed that he, Mubarak, ‘knew the details of what he was doing to serve his country as they happened’ and that Marwan ‘carried out patriotic acts which it is not time yet to reveal’. The Egyptian press points out that Marwan is the third Egyptian with links to the intelligence world to have fallen from a London balcony since 1974 — the two others tumbled to their deaths from balconies in one block of flats in Maida Vale. But then again, it would not be in Egypt’s interests to admit that someone so close to Nasser and to Sadat had betrayed his country to Israel.
The post-mortem determined that Marwan had died as a result of a rupture to the aorta caused by a fall but beyond that little is certain. The police investigation is continuing and the inquest will no longer resume as previously scheduled in mid-August. Instead, the coroner will now hold a meeting on 4 September. Until then, and perhaps even afterwards, Marwan’s enigmatic life and death remain a mystery. There is no consensus on whether he was the Egyptian who fooled the Israelis or the man whose warning saved the Golan Heights and ultimately Israel. There is, of course, the possibility that — like a true double agent — he was both.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated August 18, 2007