Occupy The Square

See The Square (al-Midan), a documentary film directed by Jehane Noujaim following a circle of associates drawn together by the events of Tahrir Square in Cairo from the ouster of Mubarak up through the ouster of Mursi.  It’s currently available for streaming on Netflix and is showing in many cities in the U.S., which will probably increase due to its Oscar nomination.  The film’s three principal protagonists represent three of the constituencies that participated in the Revolution – Ahmed Hassan, a working-class youth down on his luck who transforms into a first-class revolutionary orator; Magdy Ashour, a Muslim Brotherhood member who was imprisoned and tortured for that association during the Mubarak era; and Khalid Abdalla, a fairly successful British-Egyptian actor from a family of Egyptian dissidents.    Around these three are a number of other revolutionary figures – Pierre, whose apartment overlooking the square becomes a revolutionary salon with a great filming vantage point; Aida, a social-media activist; Ragia, a human rights lawyer; and Ramy Essam, a musician who becomes the Arlo Guthrie of Tahrir Square. 

The film is not a history lesson.  In fact, it provides almost no context at all, other than the experiences of the people in the film.  It’s also not a global analysis.  There is no discussion of the international dimension of the Arab Spring, or even just the overall demographics of the Tahrir Square protests.  Everything is seen from this one slice of the movement.  This narrow choice, however, is what helps the film transcend the specifics of its events and highlight more universal themes, such as the tension between secular and religious visions for the state, the intersection of the media and political power, and the development of revolutionary consciousness.

 

One of the fascinating things about the film is how the expatriate Egyptians, such as Khalid and the filmmaker, see through the duplicitous character of Egyptian military leaders, while local Egyptians, like Ahmed and Magdy, have trouble finding fault with the military.

The most important element that prevents the documentary from becoming just a hymn of praise for a bunch of plucky social-media savvy liberals is the arc of Magdy, whose conflicted relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood adds layers of depth to the story.  In defiance of Brotherhood orders to stay away in the early days of the protest, Magdy comes to the square and develops a friendship with Ahmed, sharing stories of the wrongs done them by the regime and the promise of national unity represented by the diverse protesters, crossing lines of gender, economics, education, and religion.  We see the friendship strain, but survive, the growing divide and increasing violence between the Brotherhood and liberal revolutionaries after the ouster of Mubarak.  But when Mursi in turn is called upon to step down towards the end of the film, Magdi makes a reluctant choice to stand with the Brotherhood.  In the moment that I found the most striking in the film, he says that if the Brotherhood cannot stay in control of the government he fears that he and many others will once again be jailed, tortured, and possibly be executed as part of an outlawed group.  His frustrating and tragic inability to imagine a politically pluralist state stems from his own very real experiences of exclusion and brutality.

Noujaim may be familiar to some as the director of the film Control Room, a documentary about al-Jazeera and its struggle to cover the war in Iraq.  Both films share a desire to explore ways new media forms can challenge the state’s and military’s management of information and propaganda.  Like al-Jazeera, the You Tubists and Twitterers of The Square remain aware of the power of emotional spin and access to the public.  The space of Tahrir Square serves as a metaphor for so many things in the film, but one of the strongest resonances is with the new public space of the internet.  The revolutionaries choose to record everything and play the videos back to others to galvanize opinion.  And through Khalid’s frequent Skype chats with his father in Britain, we see ways in which the revolutionaries can harness the trans-nationalism of the net to make an end run around the Egyptian military’s attempts to control and limit access to information.  Noujaim’s comments during an interview with Jon Stewart reinforce the idea that occupying webspace may have been as important as occupying physical space to creating possibilities for more voices to be heard in Egyptian politics.  But aren’t those voices primarily those of tech-savvy urbanites with friends outside Egypt?  The film acknowledges the question from time to time, but too often falls back on the discomfiting argument that the intelligentsia must sometimes stand in as the voice of the voiceless.  For better or worse, this is often the crux of the liberal conundrum.

Like a lot of Americans I’ve spoken with, I’ve sometimes been disappointed about the progress of the Arab Spring in Egypt and elsewhere.  The military seems back in control again, so aren’t Egyptians essentially back at square one?  The film’s unexpectedly upbeat answer is an emphatic “No!”  In a society that for more than 30 years had been inculcated with the idea that political participation is dangerous and ineffective, being able to affect significant change at least 3 times in the last 2 years has indeed been revolutionary.  The film’s protagonists are often ambivalent about the actual changes that occurred, but they are not ambivalent about the political empowerment they’ve felt.  The illusion of the state’s infallibility and inviolability has been shattered, as has their stranglehold on information.  A door of protest has been opened that will not be easily closed.