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Circling The Square

Jehane Noujaim’s The Square offers a sympathetic portrait of courageous Egyptian protesters while papering over the serious political divisions in Tahrir.

When observing ongoing political crises, it’s always tempting to diagnose a country’s inability to realize democratic reforms. In the case of Egypt, a country whose nascent democratic movements are being suffocated by the military and coopted by the growing cult of Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the failed revolution can easily be classified as a classical military coup. With the Muslim Brotherhood in retreat and liberals siding with the military, the authoritarian and increasingly fascistic regime seems well-deserving of the epithet Bonapartist.

Studying the events that have shaken Egypt and toppled President Hosni Mubarak, one is also tempted to explain the sudden shift in Egyptian consciousness with more recent precedents, translating it back into a familiar tongue.  But no previous models will do: The crisis is giving birth to a new language of Egyptian liberalism and civil society, though it may yet be aborted by the ancien régime.

For those who are eager to master this new language, make sure to watch Jehane Noujaim’s The Square. Unlike other political documentaries, which seek to methodically chronicle events and explain state machinations, Jehane Noujaim’s latest film interrogates the new Egyptian revolutionary consciousness by offering viewers an impressionistic portrait of a band of young and endlessly captivating protestors.

It does this in a carefully biographical way, by examining the lives and ideological development of a group of protestors, and takes them at face value. The film starts in January 2011 in Cairo during a blackout. A group of activists light a candle in a dark room and joke to each other that power shortages have become normal and that “the lights are out all over Egypt,” though “electricity is the least of [their] worries.”

In this scene, the young comrades express all of the qualities of survival that are necessary in a country where various forms of despotism are being road tested — irony, skepticism, boisterous incredulity, and openness of imagination. Poor material conditions like the constant blackouts have driven Egyptians into the streets, but so has the incertitude of the people who have lost all respect for the ruling regime and must put their faith in each other. In this entrancing and hopeful first scene, Noujaim not only foreshadows the group’s struggle for a cohesive revolutionary politics in the face of a crumbling state but also prefigures Egypt’s entry into a revolutionary age where its people’s dignity will no longer be denied.

Prominently featured in this group is Ahmed Hassan, a charismatic working-class young man who narrates the historical background and motivations behind the multifarious uprisings in Tahrir Square, framing the movement as a twin struggle against the secular, chauvinist military autocrats in the ruling regime and the religious fundamentalist theocrats in the Muslim Brotherhood. Always smiling, he explains that Egyptians have subsisted under a brutal regime that has made a sport out of humiliating its citizens, but now, they refuse to be objects of ridicule.

Mubarak refers to the defiant youth as his “sons and daughters,” though it is clear from the first mass gathering in the square that Hassan’s generation wants nothing more than to be orphans, authors of their own history. A consummate political salesman, Hassan is always on the phone, sloganeering and mustering support for more protests. Most of Hassan’s compatriots are also young liberals: Khalid Abdalla, the Kite Runner star and an unofficial spokesman of the liberal wing of the movement; Remy Essam, a singer-songwriter who performs protest songs for thousands in the square; and Aida Elkashef, a passionate and fearless speaker. The exception is Magdy Ashour, a well-meaning father and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Noujaim follows each, editing in such a way that the viewer is offered little context and few specifics, allowing each of the protestors to express themselves fully and personally. As such, the film provides a sense of emotional flow to the volatile series of events: swelling at the joyous ousting of Mubarak, oscillating during the interim government’s rule, and crashing during the short-lived reign of President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Noujaim vividly limns an image of Hassan as the restless, liberal youth who begins championing the revolutionary cause at the square and immerses himself in political theory, listening to fellow protestors’ ideas for reform and watching the tactics of religious Islamists warily. To Hassan, the Muslim Brotherhood is a fundamentally illiberal, confessional party, and parliamentary politics have proven futile because they bring its Freedom and Justice Party to power. Tahrir Square, a “place of pride and dignity,” inspires an almost religious devotion for Hassan, who returns there throughout the film because he believes it is a place “where a tent and a blanket can solve all your problems.”

Conversely, in Ashour, Noujaim presents the world-weary realist, skeptical of the radical purity demanded by liberal protestors, but also ready to reproach his party for its deal-making with the regime. By virtue of his age and his membership in the Brotherhood, Ashour has arguably suffered more than the others — he brandishes his scarred legs, which were electrocuted by the secret police under Mubarak, to prove his commitment to the revolution to his liberal friends.

The conditions that made previous revolutions possible, where power was transferred from one class to another, are all absent in Egypt. In Portugal and Greece, seasoned civilian leaders and parties were able to shatter the brittle political foundation of the authoritarian states and form governments not long after. In South Africa, the African National Congress and Nelson Mandela had become ethical leaders of the country and were able to replace the apartheid authorities. In Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, large labor unions and technocrats were able to forge compromise between secular liberals and Islamists.

But in Egypt, there are no seasoned civilian leaders, parties, well-meaning technocrats, or powerful unions that can constitute a genuine and effective opposition to the military; there is only the Muslim Brotherhood, a hapless and hollowed out collective of repressed and repressive Islamists. With his power grabs and his inability to address Egypt’s dire economy, Morsi proved nearly as unpopular as Mubarak, and demonstrators again filled the square in protest.

Though liberals strongly criticized the Brotherhood, none of the liberals featured in the film are supportive of the coup that ousted Morsi and later outlawed the Brotherhood. As images and video of the military’s massacre against a Muslim Brotherhood sit-in become available, Ashour and his liberal friends prepare for the long haul, ready to continue to strive for an elusive revolution.

Unfortunately, this is where the documentary’s lack of in-depth reporting becomes an impediment to the film’s mission of memorializing the revolutionary consciousness of the Egyptian people. Noujaim presents the liberal activists at their best, actively engaging in open discourse and freely associating with those they oppose, while never wishing harm upon any fellow citizen. There is no mention of the role of liberal leaders in the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood and the military’s subsequent ruling regime. Other than the Brotherhood, political parties and their lofty philosophical aspirations are hardly mentioned and casually dismissed as obsolete and ineffective, with Ahmed exclaiming at one point: “Enough of this. All the politicians are failures. The Muslim Brothers, the Salafis, the socialists, the Liberals, They’re all failures.”

The more complicated truth about the political divisions within the country would not only more fully inform viewers who see the protest movements as united against security forces, but also elicit questions that liberals and leftist opponents of the Brotherhood aren’t so fond of answering. Most Egyptians are fairly conservative — one poll showed 74% favoring sharia law — so it’s unlikely that any secular liberal or center-left leaders, with the exception of military-backed candidates, could be elected in the near future. So the absence of the regime and democracy may not be the panacea it has been built up to be.

A more honest appraisal of the current consciousness would also better explain the terror and self-doubt that now pervades Egyptian politics. The regime has succeeded in balkanizing its critics by embracing the revolutionists’ vocabulary, referring to the coup as a response to the “nation.” The Muslim Brotherhood, which once commanded popular support and democratic legitimacy, has been pitted against the people, who, looking at the civil war in Syria, are wary of periods of prolonged crisis and protracted conflict.

Along with its policies of censorship, torture and mass arrests, the regime has managed to break the will of many protestors, who fear being beaten, burned, and branded as terrorists. The crushing weight of the state has slowed the momentum for change, but Noujaim’s activists remain committed to revolution and the liberal consciousness it unleashed.

In the end, The Square spans four different ruling regimes in Egypt, and leaves both the protestors and the viewer wondering what the next stage of protest and political resistance is. Noujaim’s documentary is an achievement in gauging the commitment of different Egyptian political factions to the revolution while examining the ideals and political philosophies that animate the protestors. As a portrait of young protestors, The Square explains the poor circumstances and routine humiliations that continue to drive Egyptians into rebellion against a corrupt state.

Through all the singing, chanting, and friendly quarrelling, the protestors in the square agree they will no longer be slaves to the blood-spattered liberal politicians and garlanded generals who pretend to lead them. Hopefully, Noujaim will soon be able to film another documentary of the protestors achieving their aspirations, if and when a true revolution materializes.