Finally A Chance To Shine: Libya's First Olympics Without Gaddafi

Marching proudly (Libyan Olympic Team)
Marching proudly (Libyan Olympic Team)
Pierre Lepidi

TRIPOLI - There were just five Libyan athletes in the delegation that walked out in London's Olympic stadium for the Opening Ceremony. After 42 years of dictatorship, they want to "show they're proud of being Libyan" under their new flag.

A white crescent and star centered on a horizontal tricolor of red, black and green was floating in the Olympic stadium. The five Libyan athletes at the London Games came out with their new flag for the July 27 opening ceremony. In the stands, Nabil Elalem, the president of the Libyan Olympic Committee, enjoyed every second of it. It was a historical event he had imagined thousands of times before and almost ended up missing.

The former thuwar (armed rebel) was kidnapped on July 15 close to the Olympic Committee's headquarters in Tripoli, just a week before his trip to London. "Nine armed men stopped me as I was driving," says Elalem. "They covered my eyes and took me to an unknown place, probably on the outskirt of Tripoli. For a week, they questioned me about my past. It was very strange, hard to understand." Elalem was freed on July 22. Three days later he joined the Libyan delegation that had flown to London during his custody. It's unlikely that his kidnappers were Gaddafi supporters. Were they militiamen still refusing to recognize the authority of the National Transitional Council? Were they just jealous of his success? No one really knows.

In the early 1980's, Nabil Elalem was a nine-time national judo champion. "My career stopped overnight. In 1984, I was jailed for nearly a year," explains Elalem. "They searched my home and proved I was a political dissident. I was tortured." He was held in the Abu Salim prison in the south of the Libyan capital, where electrocution, beatings and acid burns were common. For decades, that's where those who opposed Gaddafi's political regime were held. According to Human Rights Watch, in 1996 alone, 1,270 were executed there.

Once he was freed, Elalem went back to judo, won more titles but failed to qualify for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. He fled to Asia, were he became the coach of the Malaysian team. After nine years away, he came back to Libya where "the situation was a bit less tense." In 2003, he was named President of the Libyan Judo Federation.

"The devil in an angel's suit"

At the time, the Olympic committee chief was a scary man, Muhammad Gaddafi, the dictator's eldest son, his only son from his first marriage. Born in 1970, Muhammad was also chairman of the Libyan General Posts and Telecommunications Company. He was very rich but also very shy, unlike his half-brothers Al-Saadi (a footballer in Italy until he was banned for using performance-enhancing drugs) and Hannibal (accused of beating his wife and their employees, arrested on Paris' Champs-Elysées for driving 140km/hour, on the wrong side of the avenue, drunk.)

"Muhammad was pretty calm and he really loved sports," says Elalem. "But given my past, I stayed away from him as much as possible. Our encounters were just about discussing the organization of the federation, the national team's trips. Our relationship was purely professional. Like many people, I felt like I was constantly under surveillance by security services."

For Saleh Sola, a footballer between 1976 and 1987 "Muhammad could be very spiteful and cruel. He was the devil in an angel's suit."

As coach of the national judo team, Elalem went to the 2004 and 2008 Olympics. "Athletes never pledged allegiance to the regime but it was impossible to say it out loud," he says. "There were no direct pressures on athletes because sports weren't a priority for the regime. Gaddafi didn't care!"

In the 1980s, the man who called himself "the king of all African kings" banned commentators from naming Libyan footballers because they were becoming popular. "On radio and on TV, commentators had to say "Number 5 passes to number 3 who kicks it to number 9," says Sola. It was absurd."

"Gaddafi did everything in his power to keep athletes anonymous," adds Fatouma Arebi, the table-tennis national champion in the 1980's and current treasurer of the national Olympic committee. "He wanted to destroy any form of patriotic feeling and our love of sports." In 1972, Gaddafi even decided to ban some sports overnight, like boxing. "He hated sports and celebrities," says Sola.

Athletes fighting against the regime

When the first protests kicked off in Benghazi in February 2011, a month after Tunisia's president Ben Ali was forced out of the country, Elalem felt "it was now or never." He joined the rebellion, organizing clandestine operating rooms for injured rebels. In August that year, he took up arms and joined others to free the capital. The regime collapsed by the end of the month. Two months later, Elalem was elected President of the Olympic committee, in replacement of Muhammad Gaddafi who had fled to Algeria.

"I fought with the Tripoli katiba batallion, the one that freed the capital," says Ouerchefani, a weightlifting coach. "On the frontline there were footballers and many other athletes, Libyans athletes helped free this country!"

Among the athletes who died for their country, was Ezzedine Belgasem, who competed in the Beijing Olympics in Taekwondo.

On the streets of Tripoli, the country's new flag is everywhere. Libyan athletes will take part in four events (judo, weightlifting, track and field and swimming.) "We don't really expect to win any medals at the Olympics. We just want to show ourselves to the world, to show we're proud of being Libyan and to remember the martyrs of the revolution," says Ali Elkeli, a weightlifter.

"When I think about our delegation walking with the free Libyan flag, I want to cry," Elalem said in early July. "I think back to all those years of fighting, to all the blood that was spilled on our streets and in our prisons for 40 years."

The judoka then took a long pause before adding: "Even in our cells, we kept the faith. As if we knew this day would come."

Read more from Le Monde.

Photo: Libyan Olympic Team

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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 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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