Journalists from Egyptian state media are turning against their bosses. What it means for Mubarak's chances for survival.
By Benjamin Barthe
CAIRO - Held in the lobby of the Egyptian Journalists' Union office, the meeting Monday was meant to be a time for mourning. Members of the institution, a regime stronghold, had planned to honor Ahmed Mahmoud, who'd worked for the Al-Ahram group, a government mouthpiece, who was killed during the recent crackdown of the Egyptian popular uprising. But the meeting quickly turned into an attempted coup.
When Makram Mohammed Ahmed, the Union leader came to pay his respects to the victim's family, he was booed. It was a sign that even regime strongholds are starting to totter. "The governmental press has started its own revolution," says Samer Soliman, a political analyst who also worked for the Al-Ahram group. "In all these institutions, the powers of change are mobilizing. Regime strongmen in the press will fall eventually. We won't have to wait for the elections."
Mahmoud worked for a general news publication called Ta'aoun (Cooperation). According to his widow, on January 29, the 39-year-old was on his office balcony, using his cell-phone to film the clashes taking place in front of the Interior Ministry, when a sniper shot him. "He was shot once in the head," says Ines Abdel Halim, another reporter.
The same day, union members, including many Al-Ahram reporters were effectively becoming dissidents by publishing a statement in support of the protesters' demands. The statement was also a direct attempt to undermine Union leader Ahmed, a prominent figure of the ruling National Democratic Party and Hosni Mubarak's biggest champion, whose loyalty had earned a seat at the Majlis As-Shoura, the Egyptian Senate.
"Since the beginning of the uprising, Makram (Mohammed Ahmed) has de facto closed the union," says Karim Yehya, who signed the statement. "There are no more meetings, no cafeteria, no Internet. The union didn't even say something when foreign reporters were attacked."
Unlike Ibrahim Nafie, Al-Ahram's former boss, who led the union for a while with persisting rumors of corruption, Ahmed, who is also a columnist for the daily newspaper, is regarded as a relatively good journalist. "In the government style, he's the most respectable," says an Al-Ahram reporter, who spoke under condition of anonymity.
But his professionalism stops at the doorsteps of Arab leader's palaces. In April 2010, he was attending a conference organized by the Union of Arab Journalists as the organization's secretary general. At the conference, Tunisia's since deposed President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali was awarded a prize for his role in defending freedom of the press.
When the Egyptian revolution started, he showed signs of understanding the youth's demands, but refused to question the President. On February 1, just minutes before Mubarak announced he wouldn't be running for a new term, Ahmed publicly said: "the right thing to do is defend the President."
But the era of automatic obedience is over. Defections are increasingly common. Manal Agrama, a reporter at a culture magazine tied to the Interior Ministry, left her job to join the Tahrir square protesters. "Two weeks off and my boss never dared to call me," she says proud of her audacity. Pressured by the competition, Al-Ahram is revisiting its vocabulary: the word "looter" has disappeared and replaced by the word "revolution".
In the broadcast media, even more prone to pro-regime reports than their print counterparts, anger is also rising. Shahira Amin, deputy chief editor for the national TV, resigned, fed up with the gap between reality and her channel's reports.
"Before getting hired by the state media, reporters must get the OK from the secret services. The Union transformed them into the Mubarak clan's personal PR firm!" says Khaled Daoud, who used to work at Al-Ahram and is now in New York as a correspondent for an Arabic Channel.
When the elevator opened in the journalists' union building and Ahmed came out, the slogans were the same as those heard on Tahrir square: "Erhal!" (Get out!), "Battel!" (Void!), "Barra!" (Out!). "We will get his resignation, like Mubarak's resignation," says Karim Yehya. "All the leaders of the state media will be brought to trial."
After five long minutes of shoving and booing, a very angry Ahmed had to retreat back to his office. Later, the journalists' march for Ahmed Mahmoud, the Egyptian press' martyr, took place in the streets of Cairo. It was the first time in memory that the police hadn't guarded one of their marches. In journalism, like in politics, victory may still be far away, but things will never be the same.
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.
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.
The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down
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".
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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