CAIRO - What has become of Tahrir Square? It is of course still right there, in the center of Cairo, just off the banks of the Nile, the eternal Egyptian Museum, the Nile Hilton hotel (under seemingly endless restoration) and the Mogamma — the huge Stalinist building that serves as permanent headquarters for the Egyptian administration.
Yes, the Square itself still exists, but its spirit is gone. The place is now occupied by street children and drug dealers, a whole array of destitute people who took over the vast esplanade, half of which remains inaccessible to traffic. The banners and graffiti slogans can still be seen. But real revolutionaries, not so much.
In the middle of the traffic island, where the grass has been consumed by sand, there is a “Museum of the Revolution” that features photos of martyrs at the entrance: all young people killed during the year in clashes with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Those who were killed during the “first revolution” — in January and February 2011 — from bullets fired by troops protecting Hosni Mubarak’s regime, have disappeared. Also gone are images of those from Mohamed Mahmoud Street who fell in clashes near the Ministry of the Interior during the autumn of 2011. And no sign either of the Salafists killed in Abbassia during protests against the elimination of the Sheik Hazem Abu Ismail from the presidential run in spring 2012.
Guarded by sinister-looking men, the “museum” is mainly a retrospective of anti-Muslim Brotherhood propaganda — including caricatures of their members as sheep — and a glorification of the eternal Egyptian people and its brave army. Everywhere, posters exalt the General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Commander of the army, Minister of Defense and strong man of the new government, as the direct descendant of former Egyptian leaders Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat. Mubarak has been forgotten in this new Holy Trinity.
The "aborted" revolution
The new master of the premises, Mustapha El-Guindy, is an old-time Egyptian politician, an adventurer who, after making a fortune in cruise tourism, founded an NGO in the late 1990s — Tourism for Development, which encouraged reinvesting profits made through tourism into the fight against poverty.
The actual impact of the project is impossible to verify, but the political career of its founder was bound to prosper. An independent Member of the Egyptian Parliament from 2005 through 2010, vice-president of the Pan-African Parliament, reelected in the autumn of 2011, he considers himself a friend of the Revolution, close to the liberal Mohamed El-Baradei and the Nasserian Hamdeen Sabahi, two of the main heads of the National Salvation Front, which unites opponents of the deposed president Mohamed Morsi.
El-Guindy arrives in Tahrir in a black sedan, wearing a black djellaba and patent-leather shoes, also black, like his hair. Welcoming, kind and garrulous, he speaks in perfect French.
As soon as the Muslim Brotherhood rose to power, El-Guindy became very active. “I know them”, he said. “They are an international mafia organization which doesn’t work for the good of the country. They wanted to change Egypt’s identity. I am their prime nemesis; I held the square with a handful of young people with our bare hands. They almost killed me twice.”
Bragging, he builds his legend confidently and considers himself a backbone of Tamarod, the organization of young people that collected several millions of signatures demanding Morsi’s resignation and organized the huge June 30 protest that led to his fall.
According to El-Guindy, this is the start of the “people’s great revolution”. On a platform, he brings up repentant police officers, tears running down their cheeks. “This revolution will work because the people, the police and the army are finally united. Before, it was an aborted revolution. We wanted bread, freedom and dignity and all we got was an extremist president who divided the country. We will now be able to start work.”
The role of the veteran politician consisted of reuniting all those who the young activists’ revolution in Tahrir had scared away, the so-called “couch party”, who watched the events on their television sets; and even the fouloul, supporters of the old regime. “After all, they are Egyptians,” he insists. What cemented this recovered national union, El-Guindy explains, was the army, guarantor of the protection of Egypt against its enemies, foreign and domestic.
On July 26, anniversary of the 1952 revolution which forced King Farouk out of power, when General al-Sisi called on Egyptians to give a mandate to fight against the Brotherhood’s “terrorism,” El-Guindy came back to Tahrir Square with millions of other Egyptians. For him, this display of popular support proves that Morsi’s July 3 fall “wasn’t a coup.” Tahrir Square, which witnessed the birth of the individual and pluralism in Egypt, is now the scene of the return of the people and the masses.
Another of the square’s traffic islands is occupied by a tent covered in slogans against the Obama administration and Western media, accused of being lenient with the Muslim Brotherhood. The tent is run by a small party, Al-Ahrar Al-Ichitakiyin (Socialist Liberals), as one of its executives, Mohamed Wajdi, a retired officer explains. Here again is the army, and General al-Sisi as Nasser’s reincarnation.
Mustapha El-Guindy does not rule out a candidacy from Egypt’s new military hero, praised by the media non-stop. El-Guindy's own nationalist and socio-populist approach is very popular in these times of Nassermania, and he has plans to found a center-left party with the son of Nasser, Abdel Hakim, the professor Mohamed Ghonim — a world-class specialist in renal transplants — and “with the revolutionary youth, the true ones, not those from embassy salons.”
This future party’s program? “Minimum wage, bread, drinkable water and free electricity.” His words take a prophetic turn: “The poor are there, all around us. If we don’t take care of them, they will take over the Square.” Soon after, he climbs back into his sedan and disappears into the Tahrir night.
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.
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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