The Square: Documenting Egypt’s revolution
by Eric Wahlberg
The Square, a documentary about Egypt’s January 2011 uprising, provides glimpses of most of the players but gives short shrift to the Muslim Brotherhood, the main player that was then targeted by the deep state headed by the military.
The Square, the Academy Award-nominated Egyptian-American documentary film by Jehane Noujaim, depicts events in Egypt from January 2011 focusing on Tahrir Square. It is neither “Egyptian” nor “American” in any meaningful sense, as the Egyptian “government” has banned it, Noujaim’s mother is American, and she was raised more in Kuwait, has lived in Boston since 1990, and as such is far from typically American in outlook.
Furthermore, she financed and produced the film independently, raising funds from kickstarter.com, where supporters around the world can pledge funds to help finance such projects, and it premiered on Netflix, again for worldwide distribution (except, of course, Egypt). It is very much a film of the new international age, where nationalism is less and less meaningful, where forces of both repression and resistance are increasingly international.
Given these handicaps/advantages, Noujaim has produced a remarkable documentary, which will surely stand as the most powerful and riveting expose of what lay behind the immediate upheavals that began in 2011 and which will continue into the foreseeable future in Egypt.
This is not to say that it is objective, since that is impossible anyway, as any journalism, any writing, any film inevitably reflects the standpoint of the author. So it is no surprise that the Muslim Brotherhood, though unavoidably prominent throughout the film (at least as a specter), is given short shrift. Or that the secular youth dominate the film and are portrayed as the main force and the most appealing protagonists of the revolution.
What astounds the viewer, whether secular or Islamic, is the military and police violence against the people, both Muslims and Christians. It is too easy to forget their overwhelming responsibility for the post-revolutionary violence—in league, of course, with the old guard and the openly criminal elements in Egyptian society.
By highlighting some of the worst episodes of violence in the past three years and winning prominence for her film, Noujaim has done a great service. She has made it impossible for thinking people to ignore the military’s bloody past and present actions. The film uses actual footage of security force atrocities to document the unceasing and unapologetic recourse to murder and torture by the military and police.
Interspersed with these horrible scenes are interviews with senior military figures, one of whom smugly admits that the so-called revolution was actually carried out by the military itself to prevent Mubarak from passing on the presidency to his son Jamal, and that when it is time, it will be cut short. His prophetic words were echoed by worried revolutionaries, who were constantly looking over their shoulders, expecting a coup, and in the end—unbelievably and to their shame—actually calling for one.
This plot was well-known even before the events of January–Feburary 2011. But the revolution seemed to take events out of the military’s control. Suddenly the military was faced with a mass uprising, not so easy to quell as they thought. How would it rein in these powerful forces that it had unleashed—to put the genie back in the bottle? Egyptians quickly matured politically, demanding genuine elections and, as soon became clear, an Islamic government. What was the poor military to do?
Here, The Square pleads “Not my job!” sticking to its human interest angle. Fair enough. We can fill in the blanks: in addition to its ongoing episodic violence, intended to intimidate everyone, the military hobbled Islamic activists at every step, disbanding the elected parliament and stripping the president of his powers, in hopes that they could cow them into accepting a subservient role in the new order.
When it became clear to all—Islamic groups, Christians, old guard, secuarlists—that Islamic groups were ready and able to chart a new course for Egypt based on the Quran, the military’s only weapon was … weapons. Up the violence! Kill, torture, terrorize, and then, when Egyptians of all stripes were pleading for “security”, take control. Very clever.
This clear scenario is only hinted at by The Square. Most of the film’s protagonists spout the nonsense that the Brotherhood was in a cynical pact with the military, and the only Brotherhood actor featured in the film is Magdy Ashour, a dissident within the Brotherhood who disobeys his higher-ups defiantly at crucial moments, even disowning the Brotherhood at one point. No legitimate Brotherhood spokesman articulates the views held by most members—that the MB was pursuing a more patient, realistic, and less confrontational path to civilian democracy.
The film was originally released in January 2012 and immediately won the Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary at the Sundance film festival and the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. With the July 2013 coup, Noujaim returned to Tahrir to update the film, swallowing the secularist line about “the largest demonstration in history” precipitating the coup and actually celebrating the coup (through the joy of the film’s actors — excluding Ashour). The film ends with the naive secular hero, ex-street kid Ahmed Hassan, phoning Ashour, traumatized, tortured and in prison, to wish him well and say there is nothing personal in their disagreement over the coup. Crocodile tears.
Noujaim, as channeled by Ahmed and the other main protagonist, British-Egyptian actor Khalid Abdallah, while not happy with the coup in retrospect, rationalizes it as a step toward their goal of a nice, secular democratic Egypt, a lovely fantasy, which the cynical military and the Brotherhood both know to be a false goal.
The Pinochet of Egypt, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, overthrew the legitimate government headed by President Mohamed Mursi in July 2013, ordered the slaughter of thousands, and has since been promoted to Field Marshal by his quisling interim President Adly Mansour. El-Sisi has never actually commanded troops in any “war,” except the war against his own people, making the title ludicrous. Yes, Pinochet became president of Chile and continued his reign of terror for 17 years, but he was eventually arrested and is remembered now as a cruel and unjust tyrant, not Chile’s savior. Read your history, Sisi.
Noujain did not make this logical conclusion, though we, the viewers, can. Like all cultural artifacts, The Square is a product of its environment, its maker, and demands an intelligent viewing. It is to be recommended as a surprisingly honest depiction of events. The fact that it raises the ire of just about everyone shows that it is not pulling any punches. Only the secular socialists can enthusiastically commend it, but then that is Noujain’s milieu. We can at least be thankful to her for providing a precious compilation of historic footage, interspersed with “the human stories of specific individuals caught up in the revolt”, but especially for revealing the military monster eating away at the heart of the revolution.
“This film is sort of a love letter to those ideas that were put forth at the start of the revolution. Some may say that what is happening now is a tragedy, but it is still an open-ended story.” With the deletion of “some may say that,” Noujain has the pulse of Egypt’s revolution. Good luck to Noujain at the Oscars.
A version of this appeared at Crescent International