Probing The Soul Of Misrata, Martyr Of Libyan Revolution

A woman walks past a wall full of names of people who died during the Libyan Civil War, in Misrata.
A woman walks past a wall full of names of people who died during the Libyan Civil War, in Misrata.
Frédéric Bobin

MISRATA â€" It’s a strange city where 15-year-old kids can be seen jumping behind the wheel of semi-wrecked cars, where the scenery they pass is made mostly of building facades blackened by mortar shells. In Misrata, the screeches of tires at the roundabout resemble the piercing sound of war sirens.

The Libyan revolution here is a troubling mix of youths sent to the nearby front line and the joyrides of children not yet ready for the call to arms. Because Misrata is the capital city of Libya’s militias, what happens here is important for the whole nation.

Whoever wants to understand the chaos that is Libya today, relentlessly revealing itself as geopolitical dynamite at the gates of Europe, with its jihadist enclaves and its migrant boats sinking in the Mediterranean, needs to probe the soul of Misrata. The coastal city, the country’s third largest after Tripoli and Benghazi with half-a-million inhabitants, is like a cracked cornerstone for the nation that threatens to be its undoing.

Ali Schtawi, a man in his 60s, tries to hide a gaping wound behind a friendly smile. He’s seated in a leather armchair in the living room of a luxurious hotel, a vivid red building flanked by unfinished construction sites. All of Misrata is embodied there, in this juxtaposition of the comfort of a merchant city facing the open sea â€" and of the desolation spreading around it. The man has ordered an espresso and is fiddling with his iPhone. The video starts. We can see a wounded teenager, lying at the back of a pick-up. The image is shaky. There is smoke and shouting. The child is going to die. “My son had gone out without weapons to a peaceful demonstration. They slaughtered civilians without protection,” says the inconsolable father.

That was in March 2011, at a time when Muammar Gaddafi was faced with the first waves of protest, a new step in the “Arab Spring” started a few weeks before in Tunisia, then spread to Egypt. The siege of Misrata by the forces loyal to Gaddafi was butchery. Some one thousand inhabitants are believed to have been killed. The Libyan “Guide” had thought that the city would be grateful for its richness, made even greater by the economic opening of the 2000s that saw it become Libya’s biggest port and home to one of Africa’s largest steelworks. Such “treason” deserved an exemplary punishment.

The Misrata of the revolution is first and foremost this original martyrdom. It’s like a mourning that can never end, an incarcerated memory. The tragedy has left scars that are visible on every wall in the city. Like a vengeful echo, they’re answered by the images of a bleeding Gaddafi (lynched by men from Misrata in October 2011 in Sidra) still being shown on a loop on television screens.

Stepping on Gaddafi

Four years later, Tripoli Street, the city’s central artery where Gaddafi’s troops and snipers spread death, still looks like a mutilated set. The destroyed and burnt out facades, pocked with bullet holes have been kept intact on purpose as the stage of a story on which the curtain must never be drawn. At the Martyrs Museum, the walls are covered with pictures of hundreds of victims, often young. At the entrance, people wipe their feet on a dirty carpet with the face of Muammar Gaddafi, a posthumous insult indulged in by arriving visitors from near and far.

How can they ever forget? For the people of Misrata, to still take up arms is a tribute to the dead. Mohamed Hamrane, a businessman in the frozen meat industry, is a typical example of Misrata’s merchant class, having long done business with Malta, Italy, Turkey, and other Mediterranean countries. “Misrata is the city that suffered the most in Libya," he says. "We can’t give up on the revolution.”

For him this means supporting the Libya Dawn coalition that, from Tripoli, rules a large part of western Libya. This coalition of Islamist groups (Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood) and of secular-leaning forces share an infinite hatred of the late dictator and his stooges.

Misrata’s strategic role in the Libyan chaos stems from the fact that it accounts for more than half of Libya Dawn’s military potential. Misrata’s brigades are its real armed wing and they even take part in fights in the desert sands of the south. They fight the enemies of the “Dignity” operation, a coalition of liberals, anti-Islamists and former Gaddafi-supporters who claims to fight on behalf of the Parliament exiled in the eastern city of Tobruk. The MPs had been elected in June 2014 during an internationally-recognized vote.

Local rivalries and tribal conflicts swirling around this central schism have splintered Libya. Such a mess has opened up gaps for new groups to emerge. ISIS is one of those making the most gains, and is now controlling territory in Derna (east) and Sidra (west).

And that’s just the problem with Misrata, with its obsessional memory, its debt to the dead, its retrospective anti-Gaddafism. The city is pushing ahead with the 2011 revolution and struggles to grasp the reality of the new war that’s begun, the one that ISIS has declared on Libya.

The real enemy

Misratis think that the old regime is back because their enemy in Tobruk has appointed Khalifa Haftar, a former dignitary of Gaddafi’s army who rebelled in the late 1980s, as its army-chief. That’s where they believe the biggest danger lies for them. The rise of new jihadist groups, especially of their ad hoc Salafi allies inside Libya Dawn (such as the Ansar al-Sharia group) and their proven ties to ISIS are only of secondary importance.

“We know that Daesh (the Arab acronym for ISIS) is there in Debra and Sidra,” admits Sofiane el-Kabir, a judge who insists in talking to us outside his office to prove that Misrata is a normal and peaceful city. “But that’s not our problem for now. Our priority is to fight against the counter-revolution.”

Does that mean that radical jihadists aren’t an objective danger for this culturally secular city? “We’ll fight them, but later, once we’ve cleaned out our own home.”

While the United Nations are working on a national reconciliation plan, Misrata looks to secure a major piece of the future Libyan power pie, but continue to see the ancient regime as the biggest threat. “Three-quarters of ISIS fighters in Sidra are former Gaddafists who want to take revenge on the revolution,” says Mohamed Hamrane in what might appear like a dangerous denial of reality.

“There’s a paranoia in Misrata that the revolution will be stolen away from us,” admits Faysal Swehli, a forty-something entrepreneur who inherited a family import-export business.

The weariness of war is however quite palpable. Since early May, those in favor of peace are starting to make their voices heard, to the displeasure of the most extreme Islamists fighters. “People are tired of this war,” says the judge Sofiane el-Kabir.

A student says he refused to go to the front line: “Why would I enroll in a militia to eventually end up being a pawn in the radical Islamists’ game?”

There’s still a long way to go, but Misrata recently agreed to a ceasefire with certain opponents in its immediate surroundings. The times are eminently fragile, and volatile. Is there ever a good time to lower your guard? How do you break the infernal circle of vendetta?

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

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.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!