The case of the Egyptian Ashraf Marwan is truly intriguing, something for Sherlock Holmes, and perhaps even he would not be able to get to the bottom of it. At the end of last month, Marwan was found dead on the pavement below his extremely expensive apartment overlooking Saint James’s Park, a prime spot in the centre of London. He was 62, and the third Egyptian in recent times to have died after falling from a London balcony. Scotland Yard quickly asserted that they were not conducting any criminal investigations, and this death was either an accident or suicide. The drama of the poisoning by radiation of Alexander Litvinenko – with its implications of a revived Cold War – has anyhow driven Marwan’s fate out of sight and out of mind.
Since moving to London in the 1980s, Marwan has been well known in cosmopolitan circles. He was at first a friend of Muhammad Fayed, owner of the famous store Harrods, and a man who believes that the royal family arranged the murder of Princess Diana to prevent her from marrying his son Dodi. For obscure reasons, the two Egyptians fell out. Marwan in any event was an arms dealer, and as such a self-made billionaire. So there may well have been clients or – conversely – their enemies keen to murder him. Also he was writing his memoirs, and there may have been people wanting to rub him out on that account.
But it is his earlier career in Egypt that has to be examined more closely for lurking perils. He had married Mona, daughter of the Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser. Apparently this all-powerful father-in-law didn’t think much of him. However, under the succeeding president, Anwar Sadat, Marwan’s career took off. He attended secret meetings of Sadat and Brezhnev; he headed the military-industrial complex (from which he was probably able to skim large sums). And seemingly in 1969 he offered his services to the Israelis. Mossad ran him, and is said to have been impressed by the information he supplied, and may have paid him as much as a million dollars. Its head at that time was Zvi Zamir. On the eve of the Yom Kippur war in 1973, Marwan warned of the coming attack across the Suez Canal, though it actually occurred some hours earlier than he said, which may have been a crucial element in a deception plan. Another Israeli general, Eli Zeira, then in the vital position of head of military intelligence, seems to have been so misled by Marwan that he concluded there was no attack in the offing and the Egyptians were bluffing. In the event, the Israeli forces were caught unprepared, and almost overwhelmed. Held responsible for an intelligence failure that endangered the state, Zeira has ever since been a scapegoat. His counter is that Marwan all along was a double agent who had been feeding Mossad with a cunningly calculated mix of information and disinformation.
More or less by hazard, with a dash of inspired guesswork on the part of Israeli journalists, Marwan’s name and his role became public knowledge in about 2004. The very idea that Mossad had Nasser’s son-in-law as an agent was a real sensation. Zamir accused Zeira of leaking the name, and Zeira filed a libel suit against him. Last month, an arbitrator, a retired Justice of the Israeli Supreme Court, rejected this suit and ruled that Zeira had indeed blown Marwan. It is not possible to determine whether in 1973 the Israelis failed to recognise what quality intelligence they had been provided with, or whether they were brilliantly deceived.
Marwan’s funeral in Cairo was virtually a state occasion. His coffin was draped with the national flag and his decorations. The Sheikh of Al-Azhar, a great Sunni dignitary, led the prayers. Gamal Mubarak attended, and his father, President Mubarak, saw fit to make a statement about Marwan, “I do not doubt his loyalty.” It is not possible to determine whether they were covering up for a traitor, or paying respects to a hero.
Finally, the cause of Marwan’s death will probably never be determined either. Here is a story of our times, a glimpse into the world’s murky under-depths. No doubt we shall also learn one day that either Marwan had never written a word of that planned memoir, or that the manuscript has mysteriously vanished.