Marcelle Ninio, Israeli Spy Who Was Jailed in Egypt in 1950s and 1960s, Dies at 90

Ninio was part of a cell that attempted to sabotage Egypt's ties with the West; she was sentenced to 15 years in prison, where she was tortured before she was finally released

Marcelle Ninio during an official ceremony in 1988.
Yaakov Saar / GPO

Victorine Marcelle Nigno (commonly spelled Ninio), jailed as part of a convicted Jewish espionage ring for Israel that operated in Egypt in the early days of statehood, has died at age 90, her family said on Wednesday.

Ninio was born in Cairo in 1929 to a woman from Turkey, and a father of Bulgarian descent. Following her father’s death in 1939, the family moved to the Cairene neighborhood of Heliopolis. The young Ninio played basketball for the Hakoach Club, a Jewish organization, and was seen as a possible contender for the Olympics. She was a little bit Zionist, as she put it, but had no intentions of leaving Egypt.

Marcelle Ninio with Prime Minister Netanyahu, in 2015.
Amos Ben Gershom / GPO

However, with Israel’s establishment in 1948, the Egyptian authorities began to crack down on activity by Jews and in parallel, the nascent Israeli army began recruiting Jewish Egyptians for espionage purposes. Ninio joined a cell formed by agent Avraham Dar in 1951. Her function was to liaise among members of the cell in Alexandria and Cairo.

The cells kicked into action in 1954, with the intent of wreaking havoc so as to sabotage Egypt’s relations with the West, particularly the United Kingdom and the United States. But the cell was exposed after a makeshift bomb ignited in a team member’s pocket at an Alexandrian cinema. The group’s members knew of one another and 11 were arrested.

Marcelle Ninio (right) at the funeral of former Mossad head Meir Amit, in 2009.
Nir Kafri

Their leaders, Moshe Marzouk and Shmuel Azar, were sentenced to death and executed by hanging. Max Bineth, an Israeli intelligence officer who had some connection to the espionage group, was caught and tortured but committed suicide before he could reveal any secrets. Ninio was also tortured and attempted suicide but failed and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. She was released in 1968 and moved to Israel, where she met her future husband Eli Boger in 1971. They lived in Ramat Hasharon.

For years the story of the espionage ring in Egypt remained hushed up and to this day not all details have been made public. The affair sparked a political crisis, forcing then-defense minister Pinhas Lavon to resign, with David Ben-Gurion named in his stead; military intelligence chief Binyamin Gibli was fired amid a blame-game that went on for years over the question of "who gave the order" for the embarrassing affair.