Jehane Noujaim's Oscar-nominated documentary "al-Midan" ("The Square" 2013) chronicles the recent history of Egypt's massive protest movement, initially directed against its tyrannical dictator Hosni Mubarak. She delivers the film through a half dozen participants, including an actor (Khalid Abdalla), a Muslim Brotherhood member (Magdy Ashour), a singer (Ramy Essam) and the film's cinematographer (Ahmed Hassan). Our stage is Midan Tahrir (Liberation Square) near the heart of Cairo. In capturing these three years, including some of the largest political protests the world has seen, this film is at once exciting, infuriating, honest, deceitful, frank, romantic, hopeful, and frightening. Meaning, it is everything that such a film should be.
The film begins in 2011. The lights go out. Ahmed tells us that Egypt was a land without dignity. He moved from job to job, having worked since age 8 selling lemons on the street to pay for school. As these factors—joblessness and hopelessness—increased, the ability to simply live day to day reached its end. To understand Mubarak's tyranny, imagine if at its peak the Chicago political machine controlled not only the politicians and police but also the military. In the Daley years, when he'd win 90% of the Chicago vote, we called it "democracy." Here in Egypt, it is "dictatorship." The difference is in the quality of life of the citizens. Mubarak imposed his rule by keeping Egypt under an official state of emergency for thirty continuous years, keeping the populace afraid not only of political conversation, but of espionage by his informants, ready to torture.
Enter social media. I don't recall many televisions in this film. There are, however, countless laptops and smartphones. Every time we see a presidential press conference, even on a laptop, it seems to appear through the horizontal bars of an old TV screen. The point is that television is now the tool of the old guard, the tool of power. The Internet, however, remains the bastion of the free. In any case, we glimpse at the now legendary Facebook/YouTube video by a young woman, Asma Mahfouz, calling on Egyptians to follow the lead of the Tunisians and rise up, in this series of rebellions we today call the "Arab Spring." Watching this film, it occurs to me that the methods of non-violent resistance have changed. The dissent must be much larger, but the charismatic speaker now seems replaced by the viral video and dramatic protest film.
After their efforts compel Mubarak to resign, the Egyptians cry tears that been locked away for half a century. I imagine watching this movie in a room full of Egyptians holding back their tears, finally feeling a glimmer of hope.
The film presents itself as the clash between three forces: the revolutionaries, the military, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Its frequently romantic depictions of the revolutionaries reveal the film's bias. Ahmed Hassan, for example, frequently appears with a haze around him, which is clearly not from Cairo's pollution. Magdy Ashour dissents against his Muslim Brotherhood bosses. The brief interviews with military seem mocking. In other words, Noujaim unabashedly chooses sides here: she sides with the young, secular voices as though they are the true champions of Egyptian dignity. The film admits toward the end, however, that the protesters lack any substantive vision beyond the general demands, which open them to multiple mistakes, and their failure. Neither of the other two have any depth, but the military has the guns.
With Mubarak's ouster, the military seizes power and turns the giant non-violent protests into a bloody chaotic mess. Tanks and trucks plow over civilians, twisting the life out of young bodies. They beat and electrocute prisoners. Hospital reports hide the casualties. Small cameras and online videos are the protesters' only weapons, documenting the atrocities. The conflicts with the military are more horrific considering that in most stories of resistance—Palestinians, African Americans in the Civil Rights struggle, an American Revolutionaries against the British—the power brokers and the disposed are from two different populations, but here the soldiers are firing upon their own people.
Meanwhile, the largest, most organized activist force in the Arab world, the Muslim Brotherhood, remained silent through the first rounds of protests. Now, they enter, facing skepticism from the young people, in the same way that the right-wing Christian movement in the US would face skepticism from American secular, liberal activists. They accuse the Brotherhood of cutting deals with the military, thus betraying the revolutionaries. The film stops short of confirming the deals, though various members on the street provide multiple opinions. In the process, anger overtakes the exhilaration. The protesters are confident they can outlast the military and its tribunals, but now they fear that the Brotherhood will steal the movement. The film's bias against the religious party—rightly or wrongly—here reminded me of another documentary, "Jesus Camp", that presented Evangelical Christians as indoctrinated fools.
The singing and secular sloganeering in Tahrir Square now gets replaced with massive prayers and Islamic rhetoric. The protesters do comment that they are Muslim, as much as any in the Brotherhood, but we are made to feel that their Islam, at least in normative expression, is not central to them.
Egypt stages its first democratic elections. The Brotherhood dominates the parliamentary results. Next, they squeak past the ancient regime to take the presidency: Dr. Mohammed Morsi takes over. And, the protesters are livid, though they are partly to blame because in some misguided self-righteousness, many boycott the elections. Some understand, however, that the Brotherhood already held an advantage in having decades of organizing experience, against all other groups, especially, these young idealists.
Nevertheless, protests gather to return Egypt to some semblance of secularism. First, Christians protest the lack of protection by the military, to which the military responds with more brutal carnage. The film, however, does not tell who is attacking the Christians at this point. In a previous round (not mentioned in the movie), Muslim Brotherhood forces were initially accused, but exposés at that time concluded that Mubarak loyalists were the guilty parties.
Morsi, in his attempts to transition Egypt into its new era grants himself powers exceeding anything possessed by Mubarak. While clips present Mubarak as a calm tyrant, Morsi is angry, ready to lose his temper as he calls upon the Divine. The problem, however, is that Morsi held unchecked powers on paper, but himself remained powerless against the military. The failure of the Muslim Brotherhood is the common failure of religious parties in the political realm: the pious Utopianism and messianic triumphalism that result from religious activism without substance inhibits their capability to negotiate with opposing forces. Just as the protesters were masters at protesting, but failed at the ballot box, the Brotherhood were masters as a social service organization, but failed thus far in politics.
Now, even larger forces unite upon Tahrir Square (and beyond) to remove Morsi. And, again, they succeed. The short lived rule by the so-called Islamists gets cut short by protesters who identify themselves as tamarod (rebels). This leads to even more joy and celebrations. But Morsi's official ouster gives way to a coup by al-Sisi, the head of…the military. Thus, the series of protests remove the original dictator, then remove his democratically elected successor, to give way to a new tyrant. Meet the new boss; he's the same as the old boss. Failure.
The film hints at American complicity. The tear gas containers come from America. Beyond this, however, the film gives the United States a free pass. Let us not kid ourselves. The US gives Egypt a billion and a half dollars in annual aid, the entirety seemed to go straight to Mubarak's pockets and now the al-Sisi government. We need full access to the Suez Canal for our imports and exports. If the Canal gets blocked or if tariffs make its use cost-prohibitive, our ships must travel all the way around South Africa, resulting in slower deliveries and higher costs, threatening every American incumbent in future elections. We are definitely hovering around every moment of this national change, and not just in Egypt, but across the Arab world. But, this movie is not about the larger forces scrutinizing and manipulating the process; it's about the young Egyptians standing in Tahrir Square, seeking their own way through society on their own terms.
So, was the Egyptian protest movement a failure? As I type this article, Egypt conducts a new round of votes. In the process, perhaps the Egyptians are slowly discovering the same thing every citizen of every democracy has to learn, that national politics require endless efforts toward clearly defined higher ideals on one hand, and against corruption on the other hand. Meanwhile, the shift from revolution to civil society is a delicate path full of mistakes and opportunists. But, the non-violent handing off of power is not only a great success, but the ability to determine its path is itself also dignity in action. So, in that way, the movement is a failure only when the Egyptians give up. And, thus they are a long way away from failure, hopefully. So, we are hopefully watching a rise, fall, and greater rise.