Jehane Noujaim, the director of the Netflix-original Oscar-nominated documentary “The Square” (Al-Midan), grew up only a few blocks away from Cairo’s central Tahrir Square, which was the Ground Zero of the (2011) “Arab Spring.” She was heretofore best-known for her 2004 documentary “Control Room” about Al Jazeera’s coverage of the second Iraq war.
I don’t know who shot what in “The Square,” but there are several occasions in which protesters are fleeing soldiers and police in which the camera goes against the flow (that is, toward the official assailants), and one in which filming continues as the cameraperson is tasered. Noujaim herself was arrested and held incommunicado for several days, and one of the other featured players in the mass demonstrations that brought down Egyptian President Hosni Mubark, Ramy Essam, whose song “Erhal” was the theme-song of the protests was tortured (off camera, though the results are included in the film).
There are interviews with a general and some footage from CNN coverage, but the film primarily shows three men who were in the square early and again and again (protesting army rule and then the despotism of the Muslim Brotherhood elected president Mohamed Mosri. Well two of them sought to topple a second president. The third, the oldest, and the most tested (imprisoned by the Mubarak regime), Magdy Ashour, was demonstrated for Morsi after the army deposed him 3 July 2013 (368 days after he took office).
The other two foci are Khalid Abdalla, the son of expatriated (to the UK) foes of the Mubarak regime and star of “The Kite Runner,” and young firebrand Ahmad Hassan (one of four credited directors of photography and an organizer of the initial demonstration/occupation). These two feel that the Muslim Brotherhood sold out the (inchoate) revolution and seem to me to lack any program for a post-authoritarian, militaristic Egypt other than that it should be secularist, not Islamist, as Mosri tried to make the country, persecuting Coptic Christians in particular.
The occupation of Tahrir Square that led Mubarak to quit (but, surprisingly, not leave the country like the Somozas or “Baby Doc,” Idi Amin, et al.) was gargantuan. The demonstrations centering (and far overflowing!) Tahrir Square against Mosri were even bigger, I am quite willing to believe the largest demonstration in human history.
I would have liked to know something of the backstory of Ahmad. What is most dramatic at the individual level in the documentary is the anguish of Magdy, who follows orders from the Muslim Brotherhood but grew close to the secular “revolutionaries,” especially Ahmad. Magdy’s wife and son are much more unquestioning of Brotherhood opportunism than he is. The afterwords titles report that Magdy has been imprisoned by the post-Brotherhood regime (along with Mubarak and Mosri).
Since the movie was made (indeed, only a week ago: 15 January 2014!) a new constitution was approved that proclaims equality between the sexes and an absolute freedom of belief, although Islam is encoded as being the state religion., It bans political parties based on “religion, race, gender or geography” The military retains the ability to appoint the national Minister of Defense for the next eight years. The result of going on three years of tumult is a constitution not very different from the 1971 one and continued dominance of Egypt by the military (whose condoning the initial demonstrations was based on wanting to prevent Mubarak passing the presidency on to his son).
As in my review of the edited diaries of Ahdaf Soueif’s obsolete-before-publication this month Cairo: Memoir of a City Transformed, I want to quote from Bilal Fadl writing an open letter to a friend who had been an active participant in the 2011 “revolution” (published in the Cairo newspaper Al-Shorouk): “I write you on the last day of this dismal year , when the dreams of Egyptians for a civil state that would bring freedom, dignity, and social justice turned into nightmares. We now live in the shadow of a regime that is martial in its head, repressive in its arms, civilian in its skin, granting freedom only to those who applaud it,” which is to say something not very different from the old autocracy headed by Mubarak.” Noujaim’s documentary is not only more polyvocalic than Soueif’s book, but less euphoric about the outcome of the series of mass mobilizations of the Egyptian populace.
P.S. from this week’s Economist: “A generation of young Egyptians felt briefly and giddily empowered by the 2011 revolution. They now sense that the ‘wall of fear’ they had demolished is being rebuilt around them, brick by brick…. Through a mix of rests, prosecutorial summons, and harsh court sentences, Egypt’s newly [?] invigorated ‘deep state,’ as the old security establishment is known, plainly now regards as enemies not only the Muslim Brothers but also the liberal-leaning activists who stirred up the revolution three years ago.” US military aid has continued, and in “The Square” as in the also Oscar-nominated “Dirty War,” the bullets fired on the demonstrators are American ones.