CAIRO — A student in a pre-kindergarten classroom at one of Cairo’s suburban schools is anticipating her impending birthday. When asked how old she will be, the girl begins to count up to four on her fingers, but then looks at her hand in dismay and quickly puts it down.
Only “bad people” make that sign, she proclaims to her teacher before proceeding to instead hold up two fingers on each hand to indicate her age.
The scene has become a familiar one in Egypt’s classrooms, where political debates have gained a new foothold.
The young girl’s gesture was both childlike and unsurprising. The four-finger “Rabea” salute is now associated with the Muslim Brotherhood after the dispersal of a sit-in at Rabea al-Adaweya Mosque last August, in which more than 1,000 people were killed.
But those making the four-finger salute at protests aren’t the only ones who have been arrested. In December, a 15-year-old schoolboy was detained for 30 days because there was a sticker affixed to the ruler he brought to school that had the Rabea sign on it. His father and two teachers were then arrested for “inciting” the child to possess the ruler.
Politics is everywhere
Three years on, arguably one of the most sustained effects of the Jan. 25 uprising is the prevalence of politics in everyday life. It’s no wonder that the country’s children are more aware of current events. From seeing protests on the streets, to listening to the news at home or experiencing — maybe even participating in — heated debates at family events, children are widely exposed to politics.
In a country sharply polarized since the military’s ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi last summer, these divides are making their way into classrooms and playgrounds, where bullying and taunting are often colored by political rifts.
A local language school student, 13-year-old Farida Mohamed, recalls things getting heated around the time of the constitutional referendum. She was standing with a group of friends at school when a boy she identifies as pro-Muslim Brotherhood ridiculed the fact that she and her friends all supported the draft constitution.
“So then I, and a group of others, turned to him and said that they had voted yes for Morsi’s constitution, while another group started telling him that they the Brotherhood always think they’re right,” she recalls.
As minors, of course, none of these young people actually voted, but that didn’t seem to matter. “The tone of the argument became more and more aggressive, and it started turning into a fight,” Farida remembers.
She estimates that in her class of 28 students, about 20 support former military commander Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and oppose the Muslim Brotherhood, while two support the Brotherhood. The rest don’t really speak up about the issue. The pupil says that most of the time the students get along fine — until the topic of politics comes up.
The unenforcable rule
A number of schools have enforced a no-politics policy in the classroom, while the Ministry of Education banned questions related to politics in this year’s exams.
The ministry points to cases in which schools are crafting politically biased exam papers. In 2012, a school in Sharqiya asked students to write an essay congratulating the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party on their win in the parliamentary elections, and characterized protesters as thugs in an Arabic language exam for primary students.
In another preparatory school in Alexandria, an Arabic language exam was canceled after one question asked students to describe the National Salvation Front — the main opposition coalition against the Brotherhood — as thieves.
Following a pattern established in the past three years whereby change at the top is reflected in amendments to the school curriculum, the Ministry of Education took measures after the Brotherhood’s was overthrown to reverse any curricula changes introduced by Morsi’s short-lived administration.
There have also been attempts to bring schools allegedly affiliated with the Brotherhood under close state supervision.
“We've been given clear instructions to no longer discuss politics at all at school,” says Noreen Ashraf, who teaches grades three and four. But “the kids are fully aware of everything going on,” she adds.
Ashraf says that there are three students at the school whose parents are pro-Brotherhood, and as a result they are often teased by the other students, who call them “Morsi’s loves.”
Additionally, because their parents are religious, these students are not allowed to attend certain school functions, such as Halloween or Christmas parties. Since Morsi’s ouster, the other students’ reactions have taken a political hue. They taunt their classmates with jibes like, “Morsi won’t allow them to come,” or, “If Morsi finds out, they’re going to be in trouble.”
Abdullah Ahmed, a 9-year-old who goes to a school where the majority support the Brotherhood, says his classmates tease the minority of Sisi supporters using old-fashioned playground songs and rhymed chants, such as, “Burn it, burn it, we will bring back President Morsi.”
Another popular one is a spin on a classic playground song, “Kilo bamia” (“A kilo of okra”). The new iteration of the song goes, “A kilo of okra, the blind cat stole my shirt and gave it to Sisi.”
“The school keeps saying ‘enough politics,’ but students are always arguing,” Ahmed says. To avoid getting into trouble, Ahmed just tries to stay neutral.
Intense displays of political ideology
Bullying can have a major impact on a student’s self-esteem, says Rana Heiba, a school counselor. “It affects who they are and makes them question why they are being hated,” she explains.
Heiba says that the most common forms of bullying include regular teasing and cursing, and can often lead to physical violence. At schools where the ethos is generally supportive of the events that have occurred since Morsi’s fall from power, students may suffer from what Heiba describes as “systemized emotional strain.”
Schools have not been immune from the general atmosphere of ultra-nationalism that the regime change ushered in, and several schools reportedly play the catchy pro-military song “Tislam al-Ayady” (“God bless the hands”), widely considered the unofficial theme song of the period.
At one school, a teacher relates that when the song would play after the national anthem, some students would burst into tears, remembering family members they had lost during the forced dispersal of the Rabea and Nahda Square sit-ins.
Ashraf says that at her school, where the general sentiment is supportive of the military, most of the students dance and sing along to “Tislam al-Ayady.”
“It’s really intense,” Ashraf says.
Teacher Sarah Akl suggests the no-politics rule is enforced unevenly at her school. She recalls that at the beginning of the year, a pro-Muslim Brotherhood teacher was suspended for discussing politics with his class. One of the students informed his parents of the classroom discussion, and the parent contacted the school, which promptly took action.
“The school held a general meeting afterwards to discuss the case, telling us that this type of behavior is not allowed,” she says.
But the incident was only described and treated as unacceptable behavior because it was supportive of the Brotherhood, Akl claims. In line with the prevailing political climate, the school administration deemed the discussion to be “supporting terrorism.”
“The school also differentiates between students of different political backgrounds,” Akl adds.
But it is not just the students who argue. At her place of employment, Ashraf says that a pro-Brotherhood teacher regularly argues with students about politics.
“The kids have built a huge wall up between them and her because of that,” she says.
At Farida’s school, a group of students were discussing religion with one of the teachers, who would divert the subject to hint that Sisi is “bad” and that the Muslim Brotherhood is “good,” she recounts. In the middle of the debate, the outspoken teacher advised the students not to believe everything they read, or everything their parents tell them, then ended the discussion before it got too heated.
But Maha, a teacher at an elementary school, doesn’t find it too difficult to abide by the no-politics rule. “The students I teach are not old enough to understand what’s going on in politics, and they mostly repeat slogans they hear from their parents,” she says.
Whenever the topic of politics is raised in class, Maha quickly switches to another topic.
But for Akl, a political science teacher for grades 11 and 12, avoiding current politics would be difficult, if not impossible. “I’m teaching a critical subject, and these kids are old enough to start a debate,” she says.
Even though the school has advised her to stay away from current events, Akl says she discusses everything with her students on a daily basis, and tries to give them an unbiased perspective. “Students have a lot of questions,” she explains.
For Akl, the experience of an open discussion has been quite positive, and she enjoys seeing the students engage in a healthy, constructive debate. “They are very mature. I didn’t expect them to be this tolerant,” she adds.
Counselor Heiba says that making politics off limits is not constructive. “I think anything that is a taboo makes the students want to talk about it more,” she says, “and then they would definitely use it in bullying each other.”
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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