In June 2007 Ashraf Marwan, an Egyptian businessman, fell to his death from the balcony of his London apartment.
Did he fall, jump or get a push? These questions have lingered for the past three years and remain unanswered. If he was murdered, then his death could help us figure out whether Marwan was a loyal Israeli spy, a double Egyptian-Israeli spy or a spy with shifting loyalties.
Marwan was a son-in-law of former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and a close aide to Nasser's successor, Anwar Sadat. Israeli sources labeled him as the best Israeli spy ever, one who gave Israel an early warning of the break of the October 1973 war with Egypt. At the same time, he was accused by Israel's former chief of military intelligence General Eli Zeira of being an Egyptian agent controlled by Egypt, pretending to be a spy to deceive Israel.
With two conflicting accounts regarding Marwan's loyalty, it's little wonder that there are multiple assumptions about how he died. If he was indeed a victim of foul play, who pushed him?
Was Marwan killed by Israeli Mossad agents attempting to prevent the publication of his memoirs, which vanished from the apartment when his death was discovered? Or maybe the assassins were Egyptian agents avenging Marwan's alleged betrayal (if he was indeed serving Israel only)? Perhaps the assassins were unrelated to Marwan's distant past, and his death related to his immediate past of arms deals and other businesses, including an association with Libya's president Muammar Khadafy? Conspiracy theories aside, is it also plausible that Marwan's death was mere accident or even suicide?
Can Marwan's personal history shed light on his loyalties?
After completing a degree in chemistry in 1965, he joined the Egyptian Army and in 1966, he married Mona, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser's third daughter. After a short stint in a junior position in the presidential press office, Marwan went to London to obtain an advanced degree in chemistry. There, he was rumored to have had a romance with the wife of a wealthy Kuwaiti sheik, who sponsored Marwan's lavish lifestyle. President Nasser discovered the affair, ordered him back to Egypt and asked his daughter to divorce him. She refused. Back in Egypt, although Marwan managed to have his father-in-law, President Nasser, give him a few political assignments, Marwan never held a top position in Nasser's regime.
In the spring of 1969, Marwan became a "walk in" spy for Israel. He approached the Israeli embassy in London and offered his clandestine services. After being rejected twice for fear of a trap, he was finally recruited. Included in the Israeli Mossad's assessment of Marwan's motives was the fact that he was greedy. He demanded $100,000 for each contact he made with Israel; on the other hand, he expressed disillusionment with his country. It is not farfetched to assume that Marwan was also bitter that President Nasser had not appointed him to high government positions.
As is usual in the case of walk-ins, the Mossad demanded that Marwan prove his new loyalty. And indeed, Marwan provided the Mossad with the record made of President Nasser's secret visit to the Soviet Union on January 22, 1970, during which the president sought a Soviet supply of fighter jets. Then, President Nasser suddenly died in September 1970, of a heart attack at the age of 52, without having had a known history of cardiac ailments. Marwan's career in the Egyptian government flourished when President Anwar Sadat succeeded Nasser, leaving behind Ali Sabri, another contender to the presidency.
An intriguing coincidence - or not - is the fact that at Nasser's funeral, both Anwar Sadat and Ali Sabri suffered heart attacks, which they survived. Was a heart attack ever recognized as a contagious disease?
Was there a conspiracy against President Nasser that ended with his sudden death, bringing Sadat to power with Marwan, his informant? In 2008, an Egyptian court in South Cairo rendered a judgment in favor of Ruqaya Sadat, daughter of late President Anwar Sadat, brought against Dr. Hoda Abdel Nasser, the daughter of Sadat's predecessor. The judgment was for 150,000 Egyptian pounds, for slandering Sadat by accusing him of masterminding a plan to kill Gamal Abdel Nasser in order to succeed him.
In 1971, Marwan secretly informed President Sadat on Ali Sabri, a former head of the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate, and former vice president, who was planning a coup together with others including Marwan's immediate boss, Minister for Presidential Affairs Sami Sharaf. President Sadat gratefully gave Sharaf's job to Marwan, which gave Marwan access to classified information.
Over the years, the secret information Marwan passed Israel included a report on the delivery to Egypt of Soviet Scud missiles, a report on a terrorist plan to attack an El Al plane in Rome and valuable information regarding Sadat's meetings with Arab leaders.
However, the feather in Marwan's hat from the Israeli perspective was his warning, 40 hours before Egypt and Syria's sudden attack on Israel on Yom Kippur of 1973. In fact, Marwan was off only by a few hours.
The unprecedented claim, made by General Zeira in a press interview, that Marwan was a double agent was interpreted by many to create an alibi for Zeira for his failure to act on earlier warnings prior to the break of the 1973 war. He was accused of adhering to the "concept" that Egypt would not attack Israel until it obtained sufficient military power (which per Zeira's assessment, was still inadequate), thereby ignoring warning signs. General Zvi Zamir, head of the Mossad during the Yom Kippur War and the personal recipient of the alert from Marwan 40 hours before the Egyptian attack, accused General Zeira of leaking top-secret information, and filed a criminal complaint against Zeira. In return, General Zeira filed, in 2005, a libel lawsuit against General Zamir. The case was removed to arbitration before the former deputy chief justice of the Israeli Supreme Court, Theodore Orr. In his judgment, Justice Orr accepted General Zamir's version that Marwan had not doubled.
Was Marwan a double agent? On one hand, he gave Israel extremely valuable information that proved accurate. On the other hand, the fact that he volunteered in 1969 to serve Israel without being approached first is suspicious. It is a known fact that most embassies of certain countries are constantly observed from the outside. Israel's embassy in London is probably not an exception. Furthermore, on October 6, 2004, when Egypt commemorated the October 1973 War, Marwan was viewed on Egyptian television shaking the hand of President Mubarak while they laid a wreath on Nasser's tomb. This could indicate that Egypt does not consider Marwan a traitor, but rather a loyal Egyptian who managed to double-cross Israel.
Marwan's wife insisted that he was murdered by Mossad agents and caused the British authorities to reopen the case. After hearing evidence and conducting an investigation, a British coroner, William Dolman, issued today an open verdict saying that there was no evidence to support allegations of murder. He added, "We simply don't know the facts, despite careful investigation."
The saga and mystery are unlikely to be put to rest, unless intelligence files become public. And that will not happen in our lifetime.