If Egypt Loses Its Sense Of Humor

Essay: Egyptian comedian Adel Imam faces potential jail time for a series of allegedly “blasphemous” films from two decades ago. Much is at stake as the forces of free expression and pious Islam face off in "Arab Spring, the Sequel..."

A poster for the 1994 Imam film Al-Irhabi (The Terrorist)
A poster for the 1994 Imam film Al-Irhabi (The Terrorist)
Ali Abdel Mohsen

CAIRO - There's a reason why Egyptian comic actor Adel Imam might soon find himself in a jail cell. It wouldn't be for his role in a slapstick prison-set comedy, nor is it for his much-rumored ties to the Mubarak regime, which have so far failed to save him from his current woes.

Instead, the Arab world's most revered comedian faces potential jail time for a series of supposedly "blasphemous' films — released two decades ago.

In February, a case was filed against Imam by Arsan Mansour, a lawyer who accuses the actor of consistently "slandering Islam" — as well as several of its "symbols," such as the jilbab and, in all seriousness, the beard — in his films "Al-Irhab wal-Kabab" ("Terrorism and Kebab"), "Al-Irhabi" ("The Terrorist") and "Teyour al-Zalam"" ("Birds of Darkness'). The films were released in 1992, 1994 and 1995, respectively.

While the three films did generate some controversy upon their original release, this delayed legal reaction is being seen by most as having little to do with any alleged onscreen blasphemy, and more to do with the changes sweeping the nation.

Imam's particular brand of "satire" has never been particularly witty or insightful, his punch lines usually stemming from the broadest and most obvious condemnations of easy targets, predominantly corrupt officials and religious fundamentalists. The fact that he has been able to build a career out of nudging sacred cows has in recent years led to speculation that the comedian was little more than a puppet of the Mubarak regime — yet his popularity has never been in question.

What's trending

His films and plays continue to dominate at the box office, and he has come to be regarded as one of the last bastions of "clean," or moral cinema. That has not saved him, however, from what might be the exploitation of new freedoms for the sake of settling old, personal scores. Or worse, it could be the first stages of an alarming new trend.

"On a personal level, I find it hard to be surprised by any of this," sighs Gamal Eid, the human rights lawyer spearheading Imam's defense team. "Our society has always had a significant amount of conservatives who, in these current circumstances, saw an opportunity and took it."

From a purely legal perspective, however, Eid says he's "shocked that the issue has gotten this far." The case's second court hearing session was held earlier this month.

"These films are at least 10 years old. Why has it taken so long to complain about them?" he asks. "The law recognizes that works of art cannot be dealt with in this manner," Eid asserts. "Furthermore it is in no way legally permitted to take an individual to court based on statements made by them within the fictionalized context of a movie."

The real problem, Eid insists, is the chilling effect the case has already had. Over the past two months, three major film and television productions have been shut down for supposedly violating Sharia. Cases similar to the one against Imam have also targeted acclaimed filmmakers like Sherif Arafa and Wahid Hamed.

Legally, Egypt is currently in a state where anything goes — as indicated by either the increasingly lawless streets, or a Parliament now firmly in the hands of a supposedly outlawed organization.The pre-revolutionary culture scene was schizophrenic — eagerly promoting cheap sexual ploys to the public while simultaneously preaching strict moral values, espousing the importance of freedom while somehow convincing an entire nation that freedom has a limit. But now, with far less in the way of regulators or even a clearly defined set of guidelines, the cultural landscape is up for grabs.

Revolutionary demands

"These cases are all purely political issues; they have nothing to do with either religion or freedom of expression," states Abdel Galil al-Sharnouby, a former Muslim Brotherhood member, who now is part of a free-speech collective, Egyptian Creativity Front. "The real purpose behind all this is to further fragment public opinion and introduce new ‘controversial" issues in order to distract from more significant matters. This is exactly the type of stuff the Mubarak regime used to pull."

According to Sharnouby, these are the initial stages of a systematic attack on the values upheld by the revolution.

"Freedom was one of the demands of the revolution, demanded even before social justice," he says, referring to one of the key chants of the uprising. "So, as an act of revenge, those sympathetic to the former regime are attacking all our freedoms now, and doing so under a religious pretext to play on widespread fears of a strictly Islamic state."

Sharnouby, who is also a screenwriter and a film critic, insists those fears are completely unfounded.

"I was simultaneously involved in both the Muslim Brotherhood and the arts," he says. "I can assure you, the Brotherhood is not seeking to ban the arts or reshape the cultural scene according to their limited understanding of it."

Words that will bring comfort to few — especially when scenes like MPs interrupting parliamentary sessions with a call for prayer, or physically preventing acclaimed filmmakers from filming inside a mosque, are not uncommon. Sharnouby shrugs these incidents off, insisting that "the Brotherhood realizes now — for better or worse — that the Egyptian people will never again give up their freedom, and if the organization wishes to survive, they must learn to adapt to a rapidly changing world."

As for Imam, his lawyer says the actor is "still in the country," contrary to previous reports, and that he "is prepared to appeal the court's decision, should he be found guilty." A verdict is expected on April 26.

Read the full article at Al Masry Al Youm

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money but the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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