Violence And Hard Thinking On Egypt's Revolution Anniversary

There is power, and there is truth. Then it's up to you what to say and do. An essay to mark Jan. 25 in an Egypt where things change and stay the same.

Looking back
Looking back
H.A. Hellyer

CAIRO – It is January 25 — again.

A few years ago, that day would have just been a public holiday, marked as “police day” on the official calendar; but nobody, at least in my generation, really cared much to celebrate the “law enforcers.”

Then, in 2011, it was the birth of a revolutionary uprising — primarily against the oppression practiced by those same law enforcers. For two years after that, it became a reminder of missed opportunities. In 2014 — well, we have all heard the blasts.

But I have come to understand that all these anniversaries are what we make of them. It is us who imbue them with meaning, and apply our hopes, dreams and fears to them. So, I have decided to take January 25, make it my own, and turn it into something a bit different. I will view it, henceforth, as a day to remind me of the choice we must all make. The choice is to live with dignity by speaking truth to power. Or not.

It sounds, I suppose, easier than it is. It is deceptive as well, because one is often faced with the post-modern insistence that truth is subjective. Thus, in “truth,” there is no truth. I’ve never quite subscribed to that. Rather, I think what is important is to not be insistent that one’s subjective view of truth, particularly when it comes to events, must necessarily be “the truth.”

Humility goes a long way — and not least, I think, in terms of how one understands complex events and empirical matters. Nevertheless, there remain fundamental principles in this world — and for those of us who did go to the streets in January and February, I would surmise there was a principle that united us: The principle of speaking truth to power.

After all, was starting a revolution essentially anything more than a corrective wave, driven by the desire, and possibly the need, to speak truth to power?

But what does this mean today? Was the truth clearer in the 18 days? Are things foggier now? One could argue that speaking truth to power is more challenging today because the “powerful” is popular? It might be that the context has bestowed popularity on those in power today, but it took Hosni Mubarak 30 years to lose his popularity. One could argue, he was still pretty popular when the first spark of the revolution was ignited (from the margins).

It is no less the case in Egypt than anywhere else that empirical truth is more often found on the margins, than it is in the populist press — an industry that is invariably governed by corporate interests, and networks of influence that have little fealty to concepts of justice.

That is not to say that popular positions are useless. On the contrary, they are immensely useful, if only to know who is consistent, and who is not. There have been many in the past three years who have promoted all sorts of principles, but only stand up for those principles, it seems, when their partisans are being attacked.

Security forces on Jan. 25, 2011 in Cairo (M. Soli)

Palestinian thinker Edward Said used to write about people like these, whom he called “insiders” — those who promote special interests see his ‘Representations of the Intellectual. He contrasted them with “intellectuals.” To his mind, intellectuals ought to be those who question patriotic nationalism, corporate thinking, and a sense of a class, racial, or gender privilege. The notion of speaking truth to power, in that regard, is key because it is central to Said’s conception of the intellectual. I have no doubt that had Said, the prototypical intellectual, remained with us today, he would have been in that Square of Liberation in 2011, as were many of his students.

But there remain other kinds of “insiders,” in the Saidian sense. The insider is replicated and reproduced — in a variety of contexts — and some are very surprising. There will be those insiders who fail to question their own partisan grouping, all the while condemning others for doing the same.

There will be those who are insiders that fail to question, for example, the political Islamism that has manifested itself in the Egyptian scene of the past three years. One ought to be clear, political Islamism practiced and preached by the Muslim Brotherhood did not simply fail in the sense of trying to grab power, manipulate it for its own partisan ends, and then being foolish. That would be letting it off the proverbial hook. It failed particularly because promoting its special interests — and only that — drove its actions. Speaking truth to power, and holding power to account ought not be a part-time activity, nor should it be selective. Otherwise, again, it is not principled, but simply another form of seeking power for yourself or your partisans.

Wisdom can come from a political satirist, such as Jon Stewart, who notes: If you don’t hold on to your values when they’re being tested, they’re not values, they’re hobbies. And in the past three years, we have seen the same principles violated, time and time again, but by different people on different sides. When that takes place, one can be sure it is not a reordering on the basis of justice that is sought for. Rather, it is simply power for yourself or for your partisans. In such a situation, there is nothing to be said about “speaking truth to power,” because you would not tolerate anyone speaking truth to you when you hold it yourself.

How rare are those that have held to those principles, regardless of who it hurts or whom it protects. One cannot, for example, be against the killing of protestors when one individual sits in the presidential palace, but make excuses for such depravities when another individual does — and both partisans of the Muslim Brotherhood and the current Defense Minister have done this.

One cannot, for example, be against a constitution and a constitutional process that is not built on consensus and certain principles when one’s enemy is forming it, but support it when one’s partisan is forming it. One ought not to speak of “merchants in religion” when one’s side engages in a flagrant misuse and abuse of moral and spiritual realities for partisan political points, but then make allowances for it when another side engages in precisely the same exercise. Are these principles? Or are they simply other tools in a power play?

Still speaking up after the Revolution (Al Jazeera)

But is it always easy to speak truth to power? Is “truth” always that clear? A frequent side affect of living under a regime, or working within a system, that fails to respect the fundamental rights of human beings, is a corrupting and corrosive effect on one’s own self.

One need not get to the point of anarchism. But it is entirely legitimate to argue that while this kind of corrosion and corruption of the self can happen at any age, the corruption of this age, in Egypt as elsewhere, is the notion of the modern state. The modern state is passed of as a decent representation of what the human being can socially organize around — when actually, it is not decent at all; at least not this type of state. But in accepting it as such, with the weakness of civil society that inevitably and invariably goes along with such a state, the state gets almost a kind of divine status as a result.

Dissent, in this kind of world, is thus interpreted as treason, and inviting complete and social disorder. The reality is, however, that this kind of state, that needs to perceive dissent as so utterly dangerous, is in itself a truly cruel organization for any human being to exist within.

What sort of human activity can take place in such conditions — whether academic discovery, the production of knowledge, or public intellectual interventions? It truly baffles the mind, and one ought to be clear and declare plainly that it is likely impossible without continuous and continual vigilance as to the effects of this suffocating kind of existence.

What does that then mean, practically speaking, for those who did believe in those 18 days of the 25 January revolution, and now seek to continue? How is their dedication to “speaking truth to power” conserved and continued? Is this a time for “choosing the lesser of two evils?”

Is it a time when, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor”?

Neutrality in situations of injustice is not a consistent position — and here, the Archbishop, as he so often does, spoke well. If the powerful is engaged in injustice, neutrality is simply accepting the powerful injustice, which by default assists him.

If “speaking truth to power” means anything, it means ensuring that the powerful will always be considered the primary focus of attention. Attention, in this regard, means only one thing — critiquing power.

There may be times when silence is warranted. Great men and women in history have often chosen the path of silence, and for justifiable reasons. Very often, the basis of that silence was simply to avoid deepening a crisis that existed, or choosing one’s battles in order to fight another day. That is not shameful, if indeed it is about strategy, as opposed to simply backing one’s partisans.

But it will never be justifiable to speak in favor of the powerful when the powerful carries out injustice. Indeed, an argument can be made that the powerful do not require assistance, even when they are carrying out justice. They are, after all, the powerful — they are not in need of more power to fulfill them.

There is one type of assistance that the powerful are deeply in need of, and that is “counter-power.” The succor and support that the powerful need is the help of restraint, and calling to account.

Critique and accountability — such are the duties of those not in power vis-à-vis those who are in power. As for those in power, their duty is to seek out those who would hold them to account, so that they might carry out their responsibilities appropriately and comprehensively.

This leaves us with lingering questions: Are the revolutionaries destined to be in the opposition, and at the margins? Should the revolutionaries ever attempt to grab power? More importantly, is there an inherent paradox between “revolution” and “power?”

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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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