When it happened, Egypt’s February 2011 revolution seemed an epochal global event. If Cairo was not the birthplace of the Arab Spring, it was its apogee. The people of the Arab world’s most populous, most important nation, long oppressed, had finally found their voice. Braving bullets, tanks and tear gas, they overthrew the entrenched dictatorship of three-decade President Hosni Mubarak. The whole planet watched a jubilant Tahir Square explode with fireworks and celebration, while the international media hailed the advent of democracy and people power in a part of the world where both were conspicuously lacking.
But, as we all know now, Mubarak’s exit marked only a fleeting victory. In the near three years since, Egypt has lurched from crisis to crisis, antagonism to antagonism, each time punctuated by mass protests in Tahrir Square, a traffic roundabout that has come to symbolize both the dreams and the failures of the Revolution. This summer, many of the same revolutionaries who gathered at Tahrir in 2011, calling for the downfall of Mubarak, returned to cheer in elements of his old regime as the military removed the democratically-elected Islamist government of divisive President Mohamed Morsi. In August, a bloody crackdown on pro-Morsi demonstrators led to hundreds of deaths. The turmoil has effectively brought the revolution back full circle. Some commentators fear the counter-revolution has already won.
Jehane Noujaim’s The Square, a documentary that opened in New York theaters Oct. 25, is a remarkable portrait of Egypt’s false dawns and worthy of its Oscar buzz. Noujaim, an Egyptian-American filmmaker, follows a set of revolutionaries from the heady days of the anti-Mubarak uprising through the protests first against military rule and then that of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsi. The main protagonist throughout is Tahrir itself, that seething, teeming space where, as one revolutionary puts it, “a tent and blanket can solve all your problems.” Revolution, as both the director and those she documents stress, is not a singular event, but a “culture of people,” banding together, constantly proclaiming and defending their freedom. United at the Square, we are told the revolutionaries aren’t seeking a new national leader, but a new kind of “conscience.”
That all looks a distant, airy aspiration now, given the blood spilled in Egypt’s streets and the uncertainties that lie ahead. Egypt’s liberals and secular revolutionaries have been lambasted since 2011 for their political naivety, for their inability to offer an effective alternative away from both the influence of the military and the old regime as well as the highly organized Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies. (In one scene, a grinning army major quips at the camera: “We made [Mubarak's exit] happen. You kids know nothing.”) Still, The Square thrusts you right into the heart of the daily struggle they lived. Noujaim’s revolutionaries are a motley, winning crew: there’s a handsome, stubbly musician; a stern feminist never without horn-rimmed glasses and a cigarette; a somewhat bedraggled, middle-aged fellow named Pierre whose apartment becomes a salon of chain-smoking activists.
But among the wonderful figures Noujaim uses to populate The Square, three stand above the rest and sketch a larger story of Egypt’s tumultuous three years.
Khalid Abdalla, an Egyptian-Briton actor (he starred in The Kite Runner) who speaks with a posh English accent, burns with righteousness in his return to Cairo. He comes from two generations of political prisoners and exiles and grows more troubled through the film as the revolution — a promise for social justice — gets hijacked by other forces. Elections are held without a proper constitution. The march toward democracy gets irrevocably derailed; the protests in Tahrir continue, endlessly. Abdalla turns to media: when not facing the cameras of international news networks, he screens footage of police violence to fellow protesters in the Square, dubbing it “Cinema Tahrir.” But it’s a gesture, despite its earnestness and sense of solidarity, that has limited effect. “What are you going to do,” asks his exile father over Skype. “Start a TV station?” Abdalla has little response.
Nor does Magdy Ashour, a bearded member of the Muslim Brotherhood who befriends Abdalla’s secular cohorts at Tahrir Square in 2011, when confronted two years later by angry liberals over the supposed treachery of the Islamists. Like many of his fellow Brothers, Ashour spent years tracked by Mubarak’s secret police and suffered detention and beatings at their hands. “You were afraid to dream the wrong dream in fear of punishment,” he says. His friendships with revolutionaries of different political stripes are poignant. He listens to vehement attacks on his beliefs with a grace and calm one wishes other Egyptians—anyone in any turbulent political situation, for that matter—could emulate. Ultimately, despite his misgivings, Ashour sticks with the Brotherhood and joins the pro-Morsi sit-ins that took place following his removal from power in July 2013. The last we hear of him is that he has been swept up in the military’s brutal anti-Islamist crackdown.
The Square‘s greatest character is the roguish Ahmed Hassan, one of Ashour’s friends. The son of a vegetable vendor from a poor quarter of Cairo, Hassan is a pavement intellectual whose sharp, cutting commentary serves as the narration for much of Noujaim’s documentary. In the literary universe of Egypt’s Revolution, Hassan is its Shakespearean Fool. He grins and hectors, he grandstands on a soapbox, he broods over the struggles to come. “At some point I’m going to explode,” he admits after getting caught up in a violent clash with police. Hassan balks as the army and the Islamists vie for power, shouting a curse on both houses, and swears the Revolution will come back. He later stands in Tahrir Square among the throngs celebrating Morsi’s ousting, but can only muster a wry smile. He knows there are new outrages to come. “This is our life now. We’ll stay on the street,” he says. “I want to go home and sleep.” But Egypt’s exhausting political journey is far from its end.