MADA MASR

In Cairo, An Impossible Quest For Peace And Quiet

Searching for a quiet public space in Cairo sets you up against unscrupulous police and leering neighbors, oppressive moral codes and an eternal maze of streets. One woman's failed hunt for tranquility in the Egyptian capital.

An outdoor market in Cairo
An outdoor market in Cairo
Heba Afify

-Essay-

CAIRO — Kamal al-Tawil Street is dimly lit and overlooks the Nile from the island of Zamalek. It is the refreshing opposite of the adjacent and popular Aboul Feda Street, which buzzes with cafes and cars.

The street offers a long sidewalk with a sublime uninterrupted view of the Nile decorated with colorfully lit feluccas and framed by the Imbaba Bridge.

The discovery was enchanting, but that didn't last.

As I was parked one day on Kamal al-Tawil Street with a friend, I turned around to find myself facing an officer's head. He didn't knock on the window or peek from outside. Instead, he ducked and poked his head inside my car.

Thankfully, the pizza that we were eating, which was placed between my friend and me, eliminated any suspicion of indecent behavior. The officer, who was dressed in civilian clothes, removed his head and went on his way without uttering a word.

He then proceeded to just as subtly sneak up on young men standing by the fence, snatching cigarettes out of their hands, giving them one expert sniff, then dragging them by their shirts to a microbus nearby with a tourism company logo and no plate numbers.

The street seemed less pleasant after these two scenes, and we left.

I eventually learned that the frequent police street patrols — and the awkward looks that my friends gave me when I mentioned my trips to Kamal al-Tawil — are because of its reputation as a spot for making out and smoking hash.

But I didn't give up. Not just then.

Another Kamal al-Tawil misadventure awaited. It involved being escorted from a little area next to the Nile by a protective owner who claimed the land belonged to him. A previous time, kinder owners allowed me and my friends 20 minutes in the spot, which made for one of the most beautiful, if rushed, picnics I've had in Cairo.

It was time to identify a different spot, a public space, to sit, read and simply be. Cairo is in essence streets, bridges, squares and the Nile. How difficult can it be to find a spot and sit? Well, as it turns out, very.

Instead of finding the ideal location, I ended up enumerating the multiple challenges of finding a public space — truly public in the sense of open access and available to people.

The police are everywhere

You will always feel watched, as though a public spot is not your temporary property, as it should be.

An increased police presence in several areas has been implemented in an attempt to step up security measures.

It also comes amid plans to restore police stature after three years of instability in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution. The streets have been a convenient site for this image restoration.

On several occasions, friends sitting in public were approached by officers who would inexplicably ask them to leave or inquire about why they were there.

The streets of downtown have become studded with military tanks and plain-clothes officers, creating a noticeably tense atmosphere in what used to be a pleasant destination for idling.

Policing morality

The state has traditionally assigned itself the role of policing morality, a task executed by security forces in the streets. Being approached by an officer for suspicion of indecent behavior, or even for a routine check, has been commonplace.

Policemen on patrol in Cairo — Photo: momo

A friend was recently beaten up by plain-clothes officers with the aid of citizens in downtown Cairo after an accident led to a search of his car, where a bottle of whiskey was found.

Although alcohol is sold legally in Egypt, police officers often use their power to impose their own moral standards, with increased liberties given to them by the state amid the current political climate.

Recently, a picture of police forces surrounding a couple on the Nile Cornish, presumably after their behavior was judged unacceptable, went viral.

The public eye

And if it's not the watchful eyes of the police judging the morality of citizen behavior, random passersby often do it instead. A particular hostility towards women permeates Egyptian public spaces, making it difficult for us to enjoy these spaces unaccompanied.

On the days when I hang out in my spot in Zamalek, I'm the only woman there alone. On a good day, I get looks from every passerby, filled with bewilderment and sometimes annoyance at my unwelcome presence in a space usually reserved for male groups or couples. Some of these looks are not unlike the ones women sometimes get when sitting in traditional cafes, which have long been reserved for men. On a bad day, verbal harassment will cause my love of Cairo's outdoors to lapse quickly.

And some claim it's theirs

Many public spaces have been informally privatized. Many public gardens are inexplicably gated and locked, and some of the best spots have already been taken over by vendors who found a way to capitalize financially on them.

I tried Qasr al-Nile Bridge, one of the pleasant walks by the Nile that has also been dubbed the "lovers bridge." The street has recently been taken over by tea vendors who set up their tables, chairs and fridges. To sit on a chair, you pay five Egyptian pounds. To drink tea, you pay another five Egyptian pounds.

Cairo's Tahrir Square in 1958 — Photo: The Egyptian Liberal

All of this happens while much of Cairo's official public spots decay from neglect.

While some state-owned gardens with affordable entry fees can be an alternative for the quasi-absent public space in the city, their miserable states often render them undesirable.

With the exception of Al-Azhar Park, which is maintained through a private-public partnership, most of these gardens are poorly maintained. They serve as evidence that providing spaces for leisure is not necessarily on the state's agenda.

The Orman Gardens in Giza and the Fish Garden in Zamalek are two of several ambitious garden projects from the past that have decayed into ruins.

I tried out Orman for a test. After you pay the one-pound entry fee, you walk into vast and ungroomed gardens lined with broken benches. But I discovered that you can actually avoid paying the fee because the gate has a big hole in it that people use to walk in and out. Some climb their way in along the walls of the garden. When the guard saw me inside close to the 4 p.m. closing time, he was furious, obviously fatigued by the impossible task he has of policing a garden with a broken gate and easily climbable walls.

"How did you get in?" he asked. "Through the gate or the opening in the gate?"

"The opening."

"And what do you call a person who enters a place through an opening in a locked gate?" he asked, leering.

I answered with the suggestion that either the gate be fixed or that a guard be stationed next to it. Neither option, he said, was affordable for the garden's management.

At any rate, the garden is primarily used by conscripts on duty around the nearby Cairo University.

Hope?

In these politically stifling times, something about cruising the streets of Cairo and not finding a place to land feels like one more form of oppression. Every failed attempt to occupy a space in the street highlights another difficulty in trying to enjoy Cairo, rather than just live in it.

View from Cairo Tower — Photo: Raduasandei

But there is a tidbit of hope.

A few places remain accessible to the public for free with nice seating arrangements. Examples include the Garden City Corniche, lined with benches, the newly renovated Mostafa Kamel Square in Maadi, as well as spots in Old Cairo.

Less equipped for public use but equally accessible are public gardens lining streets around the capital. There are also little spots all over the city that make for nice hangouts. My personal favorite is the sidewalk in front of the popular Om Kalthoum hotel in Zamalek. Part of the concrete fence by the Nile functions as a bench directly overlooking the Nile, with a view of the boat houses on the other side. Despite the strong smell of garbage dumped near the spot daily, it's a favorite, especially for some reading time.

And the search continues.

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Economy

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 for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

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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