What Prompted a High-ranking Egyptian Official to Spy for Israel?

Uri Bar-Joseph's 'The Angel' details the sensational life and early death of Ashraf Marwan, who gave Israel crucial intel prior to the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Yael Friedman.
Yael Friedman
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Detail from the cover of Uri Bar-Joseph's 'The Angel'
Detail from the cover of Uri Bar-Joseph's 'The Angel,' about Ashraf Marwan, a high-ranking Egyptian who spied for Israel.Credit: HarperCollins Publishers
Yael Friedman.
Yael Friedman

“The Angel: The Egyptian Spy Who Saved Israel,” by Uri Bar-Joseph (translated by David Hazony), Harper/HarperCollins Publishers, 384 pp., $29.99

Few things satisfy the appetite for suspense like a true-life spy story as thrilling and intriguing as the best fictional ones. Appearing in English for the first time, Uri Bar-Joseph’s book “The Angel,” about the sensational life and early death of Ashraf Marwan, a high-level Egyptian who spied for Israel, provides a smart and historically important cloak-and-dagger page-turner. It also serves as the latest addition to the controversy over the intelligence failures of the Yom Kippur War, and whether the man code-named “the Angel” was actually a double agent, rather than Israel’s savior at different turns.

Described as being able to “charm the bark off a tree,” Ashraf Marwan, handsome, brilliant and highly ambitious, maneuvered his way to the top echelons of Egypt’s political power centers, under both Gamal Abdel Nasser and, crucially, Anwar Sadat. Not long after meeting Nasser’s daughter, Mona, on the tennis courts of the elite Heliopolis Sporting Club, Marwan married her, despite her father’s strong objections. Nasser strongly suspected his new son-in-law did not marry for love.

Wanting to keep him close, Nasser had Marwan work in his office, under his and his intelligence chief’s watchful eyes. Along with feeling frustrated and somewhat humiliated by his father-in-law’s deep distrust, Marwan also did not appreciate Nasser’s austerity and insistence on refraining from using political power for personal gain, as was often the norm. Feeling personally, politically and financially constrained, Marwan and his wife moved to London in 1968, then the world’s swinging capital of the high life.

Throughout the book, Bar-Joseph explores the reasons why Marwan approached the Mossad, in London in 1970. What motivated one of Egypt’s most well-connected and successful men to want to work for his country’s bitter enemy? His need for money, lack of appreciation from his father-in-law and his own narcissism all played a role.

However, Bar-Joseph emphasizes another equally important factor, writing, “Israel’s impressive victory in the Six-Day War may have flipped a switch in his mind. He was not a man to take the humiliation of his country lightly. Such a feeling was felt throughout Egypt and certainly had its greatest impact on those closest to Nasser. By switching his inner loyalty to the Israeli side and putting himself on the side of the victor, he found a way out of the agony of defeat.”

His Israeli handler and others who got to know him “saw he had a deep emotional need to be on whichever side had the upper hand in the Arab-Israeli conflict.” The Mossad approached this walk-in with sufficient skepticism but concluded he was not a double agent. Furthermore, the agency had already had its sights on Marwan and the amazing military plans he offered as the first “down payment” on his work for them, and felt he was worth the risks.

Mona and Marwan eventually returned to Egypt, after Nasser learned of his son-in-law’s indulgent lifestyle and gambling debts. Marwan never lost his penchant for needless risk and expensive pleasure, not ideal qualities for high-stakes espionage. On one occasion, his handler and the chief of the Mossad, Zvi Zamir, met him at the London apartment he kept. The whole time they were there, a prostitute was waiting for him in his bedroom, easily able to overhear the whole discussion. Another time, Marwan arrived for a meeting with his handler carrying a gun, seriously alarming the Israeli who practically begged him never to do that again. He did.

(From left) Ashraf Marwan, his mother-in-law Tahia and father-in-law Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser look at Marwan's newborn son in 1967. At right is Nasser's youngest son Abdel Hakim.Credit: AP

‘An open book for Israeli intelligence’

Nasser died soon after Marwan made contact with the Mossad. Yet rather than losing worth as an intelligence asset to the Israelis, the rise of Nasser’s successor, Sadat, actually proved a profound enhancement of Marwan’s value. As Bar-Joseph writes, “Nasser’s death took the greatest source of intelligence Israel ever had and made him suddenly far, far better.”

Marwan and Sadat – both of whom were left out of Nasser’s inner circle – formed a strong alliance, with Sadat increasingly coming to rely on Marwan as a close adviser and personal emissary to top leaders in the Arab world, including in Libya and Saudi Arabia. With this new incredible profile, “Egypt became an open book for Israeli intelligence.”

With Sadat, Marwan also regained the opportunity to enrich himself through his political power, embarking on a dynamic financial career steeped in corruption and lucrative side-deals that accompanied his official diplomatic ones.

While much of the book’s intrigue lies in Marwan’s stunning story, the lead-up to the Yom Kippur War and how it unfolded provide some of the most gripping suspense. After the War of Attrition ceased in August 1970, Israel’s biggest military and diplomatic preoccupation concerned Egypt’s desire, and readiness, to resume hostilities. Since the Egyptians had the backing of the Soviets, the Israelis considered it only a matter of time before they could rearm and try to reclaim the territory lost to Israel in 1967. The question of whether the Egyptians would proceed with or without acquiring specific weapons from the Soviets seems to lie at the heart of Israeli intelligence failures on the eve of the Yom Kippur War.

Uri Bar-Joseph, author of 'The Angel.'Credit: Jonathan Bloom

Under General Eli Zeira, then director of Military Intelligence, the strategic commitment to the idea that Egypt and its allies would not start a war until they acquired these weapons and other guarantees for military superiority (known as the “concept,” or “Hakonceptzia” in Hebrew) did not waver. Thus, although Marwan kept the Israelis informed of Egyptian plans to attack, and even shared significant military strategies, the insistence on clinging to the konceptzia mooted much of the intel’s value.

Bar-Joseph’s reconstruction of those crucial days, and how the Israelis parsed the intelligence they gathered from Marwan, brings to life one of the most debated chapters in Israeli history. It also provides the traditional spy thriller’s playbook of Cold War intrigue, with the Soviets and the Americans lurking in the background and pulling the levers when they could.

Still, the core of Bar-Joseph’s book lies in making a case for the fundamental importance of the intelligence Marwan provided Israel ahead of the war and throughout it. The author makes an impassioned, and well-supported, argument that a greater catastrophe was averted because of that intelligence. He also debunks any myths about Marwan’s alleged double-agency, blaming the Egyptians and Zeira for perpetuating those stories to serve their own self-interest.

Bar-Joseph’s arguments are not merely academic. The nature of Marwan’s intelligence – whether it actually helped preempt worse disaster, and whether he was purposely misleading the Israelis – lie at the heart of a long-running debate about whom to blame for the intelligence failures of those first days.

PM Golda Meir, accompanied by her Defense Minister Moshe Dayan (C), meets with Israeli soldiers at a base on the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War, Nov. 21 1973.Credit: Reuters

In 1998, the IDF Military Intelligence’s Research Department tasked the author with researching the causes of the 1973 intelligence debacle. Bar-Joseph’s curiosity about the mysterious miracle source cited in the documents he pored over was piqued, but he accepted the importance of his continued anonymity. However, a few years later, in part because of the debate over the Yom Kippur debacle, Marwan was exposed. A few weeks after an Israeli court ruling confirmed his identity in 2007, Marwan met an unnatural death in a fall off the balcony of his apartment in London. Whether it was suicide or murder has never been determined. However, his death opened the door to serious research into his double life and his impact on Israeli policy and wartime strategy.

The author’s lack of emotional detachment from Marwan’s story does not undermine his arguments, nor does the fact that he deems former Israeli Military Intelligence chiefs responsible both for the debacle of the war and Marwan’s death. Rather, it makes the story, the war and the cast of characters involved feel close, urgent and deeply engaging. It makes us want to know why Military Intelligence didn’t follow Marwan’s warnings, and feel outraged that his identity was revealed years later in an attempt to discredit him.

Bar-Joseph’s writing, and this translation, offer an extremely compelling tale that could have easily gotten lost in internal Israeli squabbling and finger-pointing about one of the country’s deepest unhealed wounds.

Yael Friedman writes about art, culture, history, urban planning and design, and New York. She is a regular contributor to The Economist and has written for various other publications. She lives in Brooklyn and grew up in Tel Aviv and Rockaway Beach.

Click the alert icon to follow topics: