In 2011, Egypt experienced waves of political protests as people joined forces to voice their dissent agains the regime of Hosni Mubarak which had lasted 30 years. More than a decade later, that revolution has crumbled and disintegrated but Jehane Noujaim’s 2013 documentary The Square remains relevant as a vital chronicle of resistance and resilience.
Strategically developed and narrated, The Square intercuts personal accounts of young revolutionaries with visions of widespread brutality and massacres in order to tell the story of what exactly happened in Egypt during that specific period. When the revolution first started gaining momentum at Tahrir Square, it didn’t take long for Mubarak to hand in his resignation.
However, the promises that the Armed Forces made to the Egyptian people were predictably proven false as they turned on the protesters, tortured them, killed them while all they were asking for was the guarantee of basic human rights. Noujaim cuts from the unfettered jubilation after Mubarak’s resignation to the disillusionment that followed, with Tahrir Square itself being snatched away from the activists.
The Square features political activists from various groups, including prominent actors like Khalid Abdalla and Aida El-Kashef who belong to the intellectual elite alongside young revolutionaries such as Ahmed Hassan. Even though the documentary is critical of the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood during the revolution, we see how one member – Magdy Ashour – is justified in his fear of religious persecution while maintaining a reasonable political conscience.
Of course, these selective narratives have come under attack time and again with The Washington Post’s Max Fisher pointing out that The Square was very biased because it painted the religious fundamentalists as traitors and focused on the idealism of the young activists. According to Fisher, the reality on the ground was far from the disillusionment and frustration that these activists harboured which was apparently reflected in the result of the Presidential election won by Islamist candidate Mohamed Morsi.
However, that is what Noujaim set out to depict – how the “democratic” elections provided the illusion of choice by asking the Egyptian people to choose between a religious fundamentalist who went on to conduct a further regression of the constitution and Mubarak’s Prime Minister – a stooge from the old regime. The Square presents a tragic view of modern revolutions, making the audience realise just how deeply entrenched and infallible these structures of power are.
While millions of people took to the streets to demonstrate their disapproval of Morsi who was eventually removed due to a coup, the current leader of Egypt – Abdel Fattah el-Sisi – has shown the same kind of authoritative tyranny. Human Rights Watch has reported that his political opponents are rampantly tortured and often end up disappearing, with human rights activists being routinely targeted.
The activists who played an important role in the 2011 uprising are now being banned from leaving the country and face discrimination on a daily basis. One such individual named Asmaa Mahfouz is finding it extremely difficult to even get a job, as she expressed in an interview last year where she explained how the lack of preparation for what followed the revolution led to these lamentable developments.
The Square addresses that issue as well, brilliantly highlighting the divide between the activists who are skilled at mobilising and the politicians who are adept at actually consolidating and merging with the existing structures of power. That’s why anyone watching the documentary, now and in the future, will inevitably be reminded of the prophetic verdict of another controversial and problematic revolutionary – Chairman Mao:
“A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.”