Behind the modest title of Jehane Noujaim’s new documentary “The Square” lies an urgently immersive street-level view of one of the most significant political events in recent years. A well-deserved Audience Award winner at both the Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals, Noujaim’s film captures through the experiences of half-a-dozen friends and comrades the zeniths and nadirs of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution.
The six subjects whose fates the viewer follows are:
--Ahmed Hassan, a 20-ish protester who becomes “the iconic revolutionary of Tahrir.” He helps defend the Tahrir protesters in the 18 days leading up to Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. Also, his storytelling skills come in handy in swaying doubters and the curious to the revolutionary cause.
--Khalid Abdella, a mid-30-ish actor (“The Kite Runner”) and filmmaker who left London to become one of the first five hundred people to break through the police cordon and take Tahrir Square on January 28, 2011. He becomes first a spokesman to international media on the revolution and then establishes a media center to counter post-Mubarak state propaganda.
--Magdy Ashour, a 40-ish father of four and member of the Muslim Brotherhood. He finds himself caught between the revolution’s hopes of attacking social injustice and the Brotherhood’s desire to use the post-Mubarak age to finally gain political ground.
--Ragia Omran, a 30-ish human rights lawyer. Her fight to make human rights part of the new Egypt includes efforts to secure political prisoners’ release.
--Ramy Essam, a 20-ish man whose popular songs make him the revolution’s unofficial singer/songwriter and musical chronicler.
--Aida El Kashef, a 20-ish Cairo filmmaker who sets up the first protest tent in Tahrir Square. She uses her camera to record the revolution’s event. Eventually, the filmmaker co-founds Mosireen, the revolutionaries’ news program to counter state disinformation about the protests.
Of these listed people, the changing relationships among Ahmed, Khalid, and Magdy provide a dramatic microcosmic snapshot of the aftermath of Mubarak’s resignation. What began as a unified revolutionary front starts splintering in the face of military intransigence and Muslim Brotherhood opportunism.
Neither the secular revolutionaries nor the Muslim Brotherhood come off as unquestionably blameless. Ahmed and Khalid may have fought for unity of Christians and Muslims and agnostics against corrupt Egyptian society. Yet that unified front didn’t consider the next steps after Mubarak left. The Muslim Brotherhood unquestionably hijacked the occupation of Tahrir Square as part of an effort to build more political power. However, it could also be argued that at least the Brotherhood was organized enough to help impose some semblance of political order on Egypt. That point may be conceded without ignoring the Brotherhood’s involvement in creating a political situation where the new constitution looked like the Christian Right’s wet dream of a ruling document heavily shaped by religious belief.
The existence of these problems does not prove that the Egyptian Revolution should not have happened. In the two-and-a-half year period covered by Noujaim’s film, what the viewer witnesses is not a revolution’s failure but the first steps of a formerly oppressed people learning by experience about the long struggle to move from autocracy to democracy. If popular faith in the military’s supportiveness of the Egyptian people wound up being misplaced, at least the Tahrir Square revolutionaries didn’t throw up their hands in despair. Scenes of Aida and Khalid using their filmmaking skills to document military abuses and Ramy singing his protest songs show these protesters’ determination to continue in the struggle for a just Egypt.
Ahmed’s emotional journey over these eventful two-and-a-half years symbolizes the true meaning of the Egyptian Revolution. He starts out rousing friends to stop sleeping in excrement and join him in Tahrir Square. The tremendous grin captured on Ahmed’s face at the news of Mubarak’s resignation looks like the proverbial emotional sunrise. When the military refuses to release its hold on the reins of power, the 20-ish revolutionary darkly burns with a mixture of long frustration and barely suppressed anger. Finally, following his emotional release, he recommits himself to his original dream.
Magdy’s changing relationship to the original Tahrir Square activists shows a more complicated picture than American mainstream media’s portrait of the Muslim Brotherhood as an Islamist boogeyman. The Muslim Brotherhood member definitely agrees with Ahmed and Khalid about the need to bring social justice to Egypt. Yet he’s also bound by his loyalty to an organization that was essentially the main political opposition to Mubarak. In the post-Mubarak era, the Brotherhood is the only non-Mubarak affiliated political organization ready to step in and bring civilian order to Egypt.
How should the Brotherhood’s negotiation with the Egyptian military be viewed? Was it an act of political opportunism and a betrayal of the revolution? Or was it a realistic recognition that the fragments of the Mubarak government weren’t going to help incubate additional opposition parties, and the Brotherhood should take what it could get? Noujaim leaves the answer to the viewer’s judgment.
What is clear is that contrary to one unsympathetic military officer’s claims, the people committed to occupying Tahrir Square weren’t there out of egotism or a desire to get high. The footage inside the protest encampment shows the protesters establishing an effective mini-democracy that makes one optimistically believe could have been exported to the larger country. Ramy may be the unofficial revolution singer/songwriter. But he takes his turn on encampment security along with everyone else.
Political effectiveness can be judged by the results achieved by a political actor’s application of power. The effectiveness of the Tahrir Square protesters should not be judged based on their ability to tear down existing corrupt power structures. The applicable yardstick needs to be popularizing the concept of public dissent for a people who’ve lived for decades in a state of learned political helplessness.
(“The Square” screens at the Roxie Theatre (3117-16th Street, SF) from January 17-23, 2014. The film will also be made available via Netflix streaming. For further information about Noujaim’s film, go to http://thesquarefilm.com