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.


Cartoons, Lard, and YouTube: An Inquiry into Religious Rage

They’re after your babies!!!

In 1857, Muslim and Hindu soldiers under the employ of the East India Company heard a rumor, not without basis, that the Company planned to issue new rifle cartridges that would have to be bitten in order to release the gunpowder. These cartridges were to be lubricated using lard (pig-grease) or tallow (cow-grease), something offensive to Muslim and Hindu dietary laws, respectively. Several contingents rebelled against their British commanders, riots broke out throughout northern India, and before long there were calls from Hindu and Muslim rebels to restore the politically weakened Mughal Emperor, Bahadur II, to full sovereignty over India and to expel the British.

The British public was presented by the press with stories about the rape of innocent Christian women, the religious fanaticism of the Muslims, and the valiant struggle of superior British values in a harsh and barbaric land. Christian missionaries complained that they had not been given free enough rein to impart these values, and were now suffering atrocities at the hands of the heathen. And all because of some lard?

Well, not really. Historians looking back at the Indian Mutiny (and indeed more than a few more discerning contemporaries from Britain and India) readily see the bloody revolt as an expression of a whole whirlwind of social and political tensions. The top of the list, obviously, is the piece-meal annexation of the sub-continent over three centuries by a foreign economic power. But closer study of the rebellion reveals that it was not simply a native vs. British scenario. Hindu castes were pitted against one another, and Muslim statelets fought with one another over territory as often as they fought against the British. Competition for power and status was fierce in a rapidly changing political context.

At the end of the revolt, the last Mughal emperor was exiled, the British crown assumed direct control of the colony from the Company, and the British public called for harsh and merciless penalties against the Hindu and Muslim offenders. Indian constituencies that had sided with the British, such as the Sikhs, found themselves in a far more privileged position than they had been, while mutinying Muslims found themselves tied to the front of a cannon and burst asunder, to the cheers of proper Victorian ladies in parlors half a world away.

It was not, ultimately, about the lard, although that may have served as the trigger, nor was it really about British values.

We are once again faced with media images of a young angry Muslim mob™ and headlines like “Film Provokes Rage across Muslim World.” Echoes of the Danish Muhammad cartoon controversy of 2005 are clear. But in both cases, the failure of much of our media to give us sufficient context in each country in which the protests are going on allows most of the American audience to say, “There they go again, those angry, intolerant Muslims that don’t like free speech.” We collectively stick them in storm trooper helmets, allowing them to be faceless, villainous clones.

The still unfolding story has been both alarmingly deadly with the deaths of the U.S. Ambassador and three of his staff in Libya and one protester in Yemen and truly bizarre, as the identity and motives of the film-maker seem wrapped in an onion of deception. And, as expected in an election year (scratch that, in all years), our politicians try to find the best news-cycle spin for their agenda.

Everyone should know by now that offending the Prophet Muhammad is not going to go over well with a Muslim audience. But one has to have one’s eyes closed to not see that there are insults to Muhammad sprinkled all over the Internet. There are individuals whose whole career seems built around stoking fear and anger from and against Muslims. So why this video, why now, and why in the places these protests have turned violent?

I would submit that it is not, ultimately, about the film or religious offense, although that has served as the trigger, nor is it about Free Speech™. Instead, it is about power, and local power, as opposed to a global or anti-American agenda.

It is not a coincidence that the three first flashpoints were in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, three hotspots of the Arab Spring. And the balance of power in each of these countries is vastly different, though all three share a precarious security situation.

Egypt’s recent election has brought the Muslim Brotherhood to executive power after decades of being a vocal and often persecuted political opponent to the nationalistic regime. They have evolved quite a bit from their days as a violent revolutionary group against Nasser. They are the granddaddy of Islamist parties and advocate conservative religious values, but despite their election victory, they are aware that their position is precarious. Their status as long-time voice of the opposition may only get them so far when the revolution in Tahrir Square was made up of Egyptians from across the political spectrum. Despite years of rhetoric, they will be forced to build working relationships with both the U.S. and Israel. How far they can push for their conservative social views has yet to become clear.

Khaled ‘Abdullah, proposed roommate for Glenn Beck

It appears that an Egyptian Rush Limbaugh-esque shock jock Khaled ‘Abdullah drew attention to the film trailer dubbed into Arabic on his program, in which he regularly spouts anti-Copt and anti-Jewish rhetoric. Though it now turns out that filmmaker “Sam Bacile,” the Israeli ex-pat real estate mogul, does not exist, one can imagine the political resonance in Egypt of a supposedly Jewish and Coptic funded anti-Muslim film. President Mursi is in a tough spot. While the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood might be expected to protest an anti-Muhammad film, Mursi appealed to Coptic voters during his campaign, and it may certainly have helped his victory. The Copts, meanwhile, are widely perceived to have benefitted economically under Sadat and Mubarak and are eager to appear cooperative with a regime that has so far avoided much anti-Coptic rhetoric, despite rumbling resentment in some corners of Egypt. The Egyptian Coptic community’s rapid denunciation of the film is understandable. Mursi’s ambivalence – he has called for continued protests against the film on the condition they be peaceful and not held outside anyone’s embassy – is likewise comprehensible, albeit frustrating to the Obama administration. It does, however, call into question his control over security.

The Libyan situation is murkier at the moment. The Libyan and American governments are investigating the possibility that the film protests were used as a pretext for an already-planned attack on the consulate. Unlike in Egypt, Libya’s Islamists did not win their election, and many Libyans, particularly in Benghazi, one of the strongholds of the anti-Qaddafi rebellion, are very pro-American (they have held counter-protests in recent days). However, the new government has had a hard time establishing its authority when many political factions have remained armed since the rebellion. Although initial suspicions pointed to local Islamist groups, it can’t be ruled out at this point that former Qaddafi loyalists or even al-Qa’ida in North Africa might have planned the attack.

What is devastatingly tragic is that Ambassador Stevens worked closely with the Libyan opposition and is part of the reason the Libyans have been so pro-American of late. He was a career diplomat who had learned to care about the countries where he represented the U.S. Libya’s perception of America has certainly changed, but this will certainly set back American perceptions of Libya.

Yemen, likewise, has a precarious security situation. Although ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Saleh has stepped down as president, his vice president was elected as his successor, as the only candidate. Islamist opposition parties in Yemen are thus neither defanged by democratic rejection, as in Libya, nor empowered, as in Egypt.

Politics really is local. Even the tendency of the press to depict these protests as a global confrontation between the “Free West” and the “Islamic World” is a distortion that, once again, will mostly benefit local interests, whether those be the interests of the American Right, the Islamist parties of certain countries, or the Iranian regime, which can freely organize anti-American protests to shore up its legitimacy whenever the need arises. The movie is indeed offensive, but even such offense will not spontaneously give rise to violence unless someone has an interest in making it so and stirring the pot. And there have been plenty of pot-stirrers.