The square at the center

October 31, 2013

Edna Bonhomme reviews The Square, a new documentary about how the Egyptian Revolution unfolded, with Tahrir Square as its unforgettable symbol.

JEHANE NOUJAIM'S documentary The Square, currently playing at New York City's Film Forum and opening this weekend in Los Angeles, captures the ebbs and flow of the Egyptian Revolution and the ethos of political victory in our lifetime.

The film highlights the political and symbolic importance of Tahrir Square for millions of people, and how this space could be the meeting point of various activists who eloquently captured the hope and disillusionment during multiple phases of protest.

Additionally, The Square successfully positions the viewer inside a wave of protests that swept Cairo, culminating in sit-ins and marches that resulted in the ousting of Hosni Mubarak.

While the energy and mood of these broad demonstrations have become commonplace in our understanding of the Arab Spring, The Square differs from most accounts in that it hones in on several people who were consistently active in Tahrir Square.

Furthermore, the Arab Spring places the narrative in the hands of several Egyptians who were intimately connected with events on the ground. Ahmed Hassan, one of the major figures in the film, is a working-class Egyptian whose political fortitude results in drawing large crowds in Tahrir Square. One of his motivations for participating in the movement was that he spent most of his life living under Mubarak.

A moment from Egypt's revolution captured in The Square
A moment from Egypt's revolution captured in The Square

British Egyptian actor, Khalid Abdalla, and co-founder of the revolutionary filmmaking Mosireen Collective, represents a progressive layer of Egyptians who spent most of their life abroad, but returned to have a more active role in their history. His constant engagement (in Arabic and English) with various constituents in Cairo and the United Kingdom raises important political questions about political strategy and the role of elections.

What's surprising about the film is that it defies the stereotypes that people have about the role of women and members of the Muslim Brotherhood. For one, Aida El Kashef, one of the Egyptian women filmmakers in the documentary, contributed to the film with her footage of events. While she wasn't the main subject of the film, she was clearly active in early 2011.

In addition, Magdy Ashour, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, appears in the film, constantly debating with Ahmed and others about revolution, religion and demonstration.

At the same time, the director interviewed officials from the Security Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), and it's during these moments that one notices the contradictions between state discourse and the events as documented on film. Tahrir Square and the political mood seems to have a different character when the Muslim Brotherhood begins to have more of an active role--something that Ahmed and his colleagues fear.

Review: Movies

The Square, a documentary by Jehane Noujaim.

Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood was able to win many seats in parliament during the winter 2011 elections, and by June 2012, Mohamed Morsi won the presidency against former Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik.

WHILE I do not wish to spoil the many details the documentary highlights, I think this film contains manifold lessons for revolutionaries in Egypt and elsewhere. For one, the story shows the gains that are possible during a revolution, including the potential to inspire a wide range of people to support substantial structural change.

Second, the film shows us the power of protest and how film can substantiate the mass movements--for example, the aerial views of Tahrir Square and downtown Cairo that showed the masses amount of people taking to the streets.

Another lesson of this documentary is that political organization leading up to a revolutionary moment is integral to ensuring that the movement isn't co-opted. The Muslim Brotherhood had been the most organized alternative to the state before January 25, and it seized the opportunity to galvanize its base among the poor and working class in Cairo.

The absence of a strong, working-class radical or leftist alternative has its own history rooted in the imprisonment or exile of radicals in the region. Additionally, the lack of independent trade unions contributed to a weak left.

Another lesson from this documentary is that it's difficult to transform society without dismantling the tools of the state. In the Egyptian context, the army used its physical authority to execute state violence on protests in the winter of 2011.

The Egyptian state, with the $2 billion military funding from the U.S., can use this apparatus to dispose of a dictator, suppress protesters or execute emergency law. While main figures in the documentary occasionally bring up these critiques in the movie, they're not always sure about how to solve some of these problems.

The Square, for its benefit and fault, is highly insular. The periodization of the events on the ground meant that the viewer is entrenched into the everyday politics of Tahrir Square and Cairo. Unfortunately, there was less discussion about the events in other cities in Egypt such as Port Said and Rosetta.

Additionally, there is very little sense that the events in Tahrir Square are also connected to larger struggles in the Arab Spring, especially in relation to Tunisia or Syria.

One topic that could have had more attention in the film was women's role in political organization. During my first trip to Egypt in December 2011, I was inspired by a wide spectrum of male and female activists who were committed to addressing sexism, and particularly the issue of sexual harassment in Egypt.

While debates about gender oppression in Middle East take on many flavors by activists and scholars alike, I met a plethora of revolutionary women who were active in controlling their own destiny through political protest.

Finally, the film failed to capture the role of labor in the Egyptian Revolution. Revolution isn't an aberration in a smoothly functioning society but is a byproduct of years of struggle that results in an eruption.

In the Egyptian context, the strikes leading up to January 25 and before Mubarak's fall on February 11, 2011, didn't happen in isolation. It would have been beneficial to see the extent to which the people in the documentary were engaged with labor.

The summer of 2013 has complicated the hopefulness of the initial stages of the revolution. First, Egyptians continue to be divided by the removal of Mohamed Morsi by the military after the mass mobilization of June 30, 2013.

The brutal crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood supporters, brought upon the council--Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, Mohamed El Baradei, Ahmed el-Tayeb and Coptic Pope Tawadros II--has led to an outcry by supporters and opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Square teaches us that revolutions do not happen overnight. Rather, they take place over a period of years where people are constantly engaged in political awakening, negotiations and tactics.

While we cannot foresee the political outcomes in Egypt, The Square inspires the revolutionary and enables her to see that another world is possible.

Further Reading

From the archives