Cairo, Egypt – It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness, suggests The Square, Jehane Noujaim’s Oscar-nominated documentary, as it begins with the striking of a flame that illuminates a group of activists sitting in an all-too-common Egyptian power cut.
Noujaim follows the activists over the course of two-and-a-half years as they struggle in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to keep their revolution from being snuffed out.
Released on Netflix on January 17, The Square is bookended by two toppled presidents: the 2011 protests that ended the 30-year reign of autocratic president Hosni Mubarak, and the massive demonstrations in late June 2013 that led the military to oust Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president Mohammed Morsi.
The Square focuses on three characters in particular: the charismatic star and narrator Ahmed Hassan, who sold lemons as an eight-year old to pay for his schooling; the British-Egyptian actor Khalid Abdalla, who becomes an activist during the uprising; and Magdy Ashour, a thoughtful Muslim Brotherhood supporter – occasionally at odds with the increasingly authoritarian, reactionary leadership of his party – who suffered torture at the hands of Mubarak’s secret police.
The biggest mistake we made was that we left the square before the power was in our hands.
“We were all equal, reflections of each other,” said Ahmed during the initial uprising, as the film charts the transition from the giddy joy of rebellion in January 2011, to the subsequent violence and torture by the authorities, and the perceived betrayal of the Muslim Brotherhood.
“The biggest mistake we made was that we left the square before the power was in our hands,” lamented Ahmed during the film. One of The Square’s premises is that whomever controls Tahrir Square controls Egypt, and almost all the film’s action is limited to this vast space in downtown Cairo and its surrounding streets.
Locking down Tahrir
In the six months since the events shown in The Square’s final scenes, the interim military-backed government has signalled both a determination to silence its critics and an intention to control Tahrir Square, keeping it limited to its more quotidian function as an immense, crowded roundabout.
Soldiers sit in the turrets of armoured vehicles in and around Tahrir. The military haul barbed-wire barriers across the square’s entrances at any hint of trouble. “Sadat” metro station has been closed since the summer to thwart any protesters hoping to gather in the square by subterranean means.
Somewhat ironically for a regime that assumed power after massive demonstrations, the authorities passed a law in November that effectively bans protest. The only demonstrations tolerated now are those in support of the authorities.
On January 25, Egyptians marked the third anniversary of the uprising, but it was a far cry from 2011, when demonstrators occupied the square to protest against a police-state that was brutally enforcing the corrupt, decadent rule of Hosni Mubarak.
Instead, on this year’s anniversary, protesters feted the police and the military. They held up placards of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the head of the military, urging him to run for president in upcoming elections. Police officers led the national anthem from the stage. Protesters held grinning police officers aloft on their shoulders, parading them through the crowd.
In adjacent streets, and in other parts of the city, the police were engaged in battles against supporters of the deposed Mohammed Morsi and, separately, against smaller groups of liberal and leftist protesters who oppose both military rule and the Muslim Brotherhood. At least 54 people died in clashes across the country.
After three years of disorder and economic turmoil, many Egyptians now support the recent anti-protest legislation because they crave stability. Public opinion has largely turned against the revolutionaries depicted in The Square.
Some secular activists told Al Jazeera they were also tiring of protests and are beginning to reconsider their strategies. Mostafa Wafa, 22, has participated in many of the leftist and liberal activist groups since 2009, and has spent significant energy protesting at Tahrir Square. Like the young radicals of The Square, Wafa talks eloquently about rights and political issues, thumping his chest to emphasise a point and sending glasses teetering on the table with gesticulating hands.
“I find myself getting weak when I see protests; I get excited,” he admitted. “But logically it is not the solution. Egyptian society has so many problems – human rights is just one of them – you will not solve them just by protesting.”
Wafa said secularists and liberals need to create a long term, inclusive political project. Although he loathes the Muslim Brotherhood, Wafa said he has a certain amount of respect for its organisational capabilities.
Talking about the Brotherhood’s founder, Hassan al-Banna, Wafa said: “When he [al-Banna] started, society rejected his thoughts – but, after 80 years, we find that half of society believes in his ideas because he started a project.”
Despite its recent dramatic loss of support, the Muslim Brotherhood continues to have a strong grassroots base, built up over many decades of providing health and education services in poor and rural areas.
By contrast, The Square shows how secular and liberal activists who drove the uprising are unable to translate their energy into political gains. The activists, for all their eloquence and intelligence, don’t get much beyond protesting in their attempts to fulfil the slogans of the revolution – “bread, freedom and social justice”.
Noujaim doesn’t really push the film’s protagonists to try to articulate what they want specifically, beyond controlling Tahrir, although the singer and activist Ramy Essam does note: “Our main problem as revolutionaries, most of the time, we only object and say ‘no’, and we never suggest alternatives.”
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With their lack of money, organisation, numbers and unity, they struggle to form a meaningful political project.
When asked last month how the energy of the revolutionary youth could be translated into political power, filmmaker and activist Omar Robert Hamilton was at a bit of a loss. “We have never found a way to engage with it properly, and I don’t see it changing anytime soon,” he said. “So I don’t know how to answer that and it’s really the big question.”
Yet Hamilton also spoke about some of the tangible gains of the uprising, including increased – though threatened – space for civil society and freedom of expression, as demonstrated by groups such as Mosireen, a media collective founded by Hamilton and The Square’s Khalid Abdalla among others.
Artistic and cultural groups are also flourishing, and small activist and community organisations have been developed. Hamilton sees the measure of the revolution partly in these gains, and said it would become clear over the next few months “whether there is still the belief that this is a country in a state of flux, or whether everyone is just going to shut up and accept it”.
Resurgent police state
The next few months look bleak for those actively opposed to the resurgent military and police state. Hundreds of Islamists have been killed and arrested and several prominent secular activists have been imprisoned. Attacks on journalists and harassment of NGOs have become increasingly common.
“Egyptian authorities are using every resource at their disposal to quash dissent and trample on human rights,” Amnesty International said in a report timed to coincide with the third anniversary of the uprising.
Despite the crackdown on dissent, the authorities claim that Egypt is on a “roadmap” to democracy. A new constitution was passed by 98.1 percent of people who voted in a January referendum, paving the way for presidential and then parliamentary elections later this year.
I can't just sit at home. After this hatred and betrayal I have to be stronger, I have to create my own place in society. We are trying, the youth are trying.
It seems increasingly likely that the popular military chief Sisi will run for president, with many Egyptians hoping he can become a “strongman leader” who imposes order in the style of former president Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Yet Egyptian public opinion is notably fickle, and the pyramid may shape Egypt’s future as much as the square. For decades, a brutal security state has protected a pyramidal structure that favours a small number of corrupt and privileged wealthy at the top, at the expense of the masses who continue to struggle and live in poverty. Egypt also has a demographic pyramid, with a huge proportion of the population under 30 years old. The Egyptian economy has failed to provide employment and education opportunities for this burgeoning, frustrated youth.
If, as many activists predict, the coming regime fails to deal with the underlying political and economic problems that drove the uprising, wider public opinion may yet again rally behind the revolutionaries depicted in The Square.
Despite being the first Egyptian film to be nominated for an Oscar, The Square has not yet been officially screened in Egypt and is currently in a form of limbo because of its politically provocative content – neither approved nor banned.
The film is important as a moving testament to the courage of a thwarted revolution and serves as an important historical record. It remains to be seen whether, as Khalid Abdalla said towards the end of the film, the revolutionaries can at the very least lay the groundwork for meaningful change – even if it takes decades.
The young activist Wafa sat recently in a downtown café, not far from Tahrir Square, reflecting on the events of the past three years.
“We woke up from this dream, I have to deal with this reality,” he told Al Jazeera. “I can’t just sit at home. After this hatred and betrayal I have to be stronger, I have to create my own place in society. We are trying, the youth are trying.”