The morning of January 31, 1955, Dr. Moshe Marzouk and Shmuel Azar were executed in Cairo, after being convicted of spying for Israel in Egypt. "The two were condemned to execution by an Egyptian military court, after being found guilty - along with eight other Jews - of belonging to a Zionist espionage ring and carrying out acts of sabotage in Egypt," Haaretz reported. The other convicted parties were sentenced to prison terms of various lengths (one in absentia ); two suspects were acquitted.
The hanging of Marzouk and Azar marked a low point of the so-called Lavon Affair (named for then-Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon; also known as "the rotten business" ) which began in 1951, when Egypt's King Farouk was still in power. That year, two young Jews were recruited by the Israeli army's intelligence branch. Marzouk, who was 28 when executed, commanded the Cairo spy ring; Azar, 26 at the time of his death, operated out of Alexandria.
After Farouk's ouster, members of the ring worked to sabotage Egyptian relations with Western states, particularly the United States and Britain, and discredit Egypt's new government, headed by Gamal Abdel Nasser.
The spy ring carried out various acts, including burning down a post office in Alexandria, planting explosives in American libraries in Alexandria and Cairo, and attempted arson of movie theaters in Cairo. Apparently, the idea was to dupe Western powers into thinking Nasser was unable to control anti-Western militant groups in his own country.
A day before the hangings, prayers and public meetings on behalf of Marzouk and Azar were held in Israel. Haaretz reported that "Tel Aviv staged yesterday a powerful demonstration against the legal murder the Egyptians are committing against two Jewish 'Zionist spies' who have been condemned to execution." The citizens protested the show trial through prayer, a special meeting of the municipality and mass rallies. "Despite the pounding rain, lightning and thunder, the protest rally assembled at the initiative of the union of Egyptian immigrants," Haaretz added.
Reports of the execution stirred outrage around the world. "The reports about two Jews being brought to the gallows in Egypt so soon after their verdicts were issued were met here by shock and surprise," Haaretz's correspondent in the United States, E. Salpeter, wrote. "Up until the last minute, people were hoping that appeals for mercy would save the lives of the two condemned men."
These humanitarian appeals, Salpeter added, were complemented by "diplomatic activity, since the killing of the two is liable to escalate tensions in the Middle East."
A day after the execution of the pair, "Egypt's ambassador in France was invited to a meeting in Paris, to understand the 'feelings' stirred in France and Tunisia by the execution of Dr. Marzouk, who was a French citizen," Haaretz reported.
The paper's correspondent in London, R. Weltsch, wrote: "It has been learned that key public figures in Britain intervened with the Egyptian government, trying to prevent the hanging of Marzouk and Azar. But Egypt apparently wanted to demonstrate its sovereign authority and its ability to withstand foreign meddling in domestic matters."
Haaretz's editorial on the matter, entitled "After the Hanging in Cairo," described the Knesset's session of mourning as "short and dignified." Following a brief speech by Prime Minister Moshe Sharett, no politician from any of the parties asked to speak. "The general feeling was that more words would not add anything, but merely detract from what the prime minister had said," Haaretz wrote.
The editorial went on to say that "Egypt's leader was inundated with appeals from around the world, including premier public figures. Their efforts were to no avail. Nonetheless, they deserve gratitude for the attempt to stave off this bitter result."
Repercussions of the Lavon Affair influenced Israeli politics for years to come, though considerable effort was made to prevent any details of the spy ring's activities from being disclosed. The military censor imposed strict restrictions on any discussion of the affair; these restrictions applied to the names of the various participants in the Egyptian spy ring and the roles they played.
(Yael Gruenpeter )