In late November 2013 Egyptian activist and blogger Alaa Abd El Fattah was arrested, again. Agents of the regime searched his home, seized his laptop, and beat his wife. His two-year-old child was asleep in the next room. On Christmas Eve, from prison, he wrote a letter to his two sisters, saying, “Each time I go to prison, a bit of me breaks, just like every time someone else is imprisoned, a bit of all of us breaks, just like when any martyr dies everyone bleeds—yes his family and loved ones bleed a lot more, but everyone bleeds and everyone pays the price.” Activists and journalists continue to urge the regime to free him, along with a number of his colleagues and dozens of others who languish in prison on ridiculous charges, if they have been charged at all. They are struggling to keep the fight for democracy in Egypt alive, and pessimism is setting in. “It really is game over,” Sarah Carr, a journo-activist in Cairo, wrote on Twitter after she read Alaa’s letter.
Like Alaa, many of Egypt’s political activists, those who occupied Tahrir Square three years ago, are in jail or hiding from the security services in the dark smoky corners of Cairo cafes. Some of them continue agitating against the military regime, waiting for the day their door is broken down by the boots of a police officer. Of the many activists a Buzzfeed reporter spoke with for a recent article, only a couple agreed to speak on the record. “The spirit of the street is broken,” one said.
The Square, a critically acclaimed documentary recently nominated for an Oscar, tries to capture that revolutionary spirit when it was at its peak. It follows the Egyptian activists who seized the world’s attention in January 2011. They set out to fight for their rights, for the rights of all Egyptians. They hoped to change the world. They turned out to be the least successful members of the revolution, but The Square celebrates them anyway. It actively disparages or ignores the Muslim Brotherhood, and ultimately fails to inspire much hope for democracy in the Middle East’s largest and most important country.
Netflix, nonetheless, put the film—its first “original” feature-length documentary—in the “inspiring” category. It chronicles the excitement of the heady early days of the first protests against President Hosni Mubarak, the brutal clashes that turned Cairo into a war zone, the outpouring of relief when Mubarak was overthrown, the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in parliamentary elections, and the rise and eventual downfall of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president. The film’s subjects may not have been the most prominent figures of the revolution, but along with other like-minded, mostly young, educated, secular Cairenes, they attempted to foist democracy on their country, which may not have wanted it. They failed.
The Square is tailor-made for a Western audience that sympathizes with the aspirations of its main characters: democracy, rights, accountability, justice. Those characters are the ones who captured the attention and imagination of the West to a much higher degree than other Egyptians. But they never did and still don’t represent a majority in their country, and years of political activism have failed to advance their agenda. In an important scene in The Square, an activist talks to his father on Skype about the goals of the activists and the aspirations of the revolution. The father asks, rather sternly, “And who is this democracy and freedom for?” The activist does not answer.
The Square begins, cinematically enough, with sentimental portraits of the ordinary people who occupied Tahrir Square first, who were there when the crowds of protesters began to swell, and who remained when armed thugs attacked. The singer Ramy Essam, whose song “Irhal!” (Leave!) became an anthem of the revolution, was tortured by the regime, and appears in one scene covered in bruises and slashes, woozy but determined to fight on.
And then on February 11, 2011, the most amazing thing happened: a military council forced Mubarak aside and took control of the country. “Tahrir changed Egypt completely,” one activist says. “It moved the whole world. . . . We reclaimed our freedom. And we dreamed that one day all of Egypt would be like Tahrir. Revolution!” Egyptians showed the world what is possible if you stand together against brutality, injustice and tyranny. “People are the true power,” one activist cheers. Or so it seemed. Any viewer whose heart swells at the poignant footage ought to take a look at what’s been happening in Egypt since the point where The Square left off. If the activists featured in The Square cause a viewer to feel a quiver of hope for Egypt, then reading the news all but destroys it.
President Morsi, obviously, was not what the activists had hoped for. Even though he was democratically elected by a majority of Egyptians the activists almost immediately started working to bring him down. He lasted only a year. By April 2013 a handful of activists started a drive to gather signatures in favor of a recall, which they called “Tamarod” or rebellion. They got 22 million. By June Tamarod had become a mass revolt against Morsi and the Brotherhood. On July 3 General Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, flanked by Muslim, Christian, and liberal leaders, announced that the army was stepping in to restore order and put the country on a new path. The activists cheered.
What happened next should call into question the activists’ and filmmakers’ credibility. In the film, the Rabaa massacre barely exists. A viewer learns only that Muslim Brothers were apparently “removed” from a pro-Morsi protest camp at the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in August. This is a stunning understatement. According to the Egyptian Health Ministry 377 people were killed and thousands injured when the army cleared the sit-in. In total, 638 people were killed that day. Human Rights Watch called it the “most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history.” The film’s portrayal of this event is incompatible with its ultimate message—that it is a worthy enterprise to stand up for one’s rights and those of the people around you, and that citizens have the right to protest peacefully—and The Square ultimately comes across as an attempt to rewrite history. The activists in the film greet the coup that deposed Morsi and led to the massacre with cheerful celebration. The film would have you think that the liberal activists were the sole champions of Egypt’s revolution and that the Muslim Brothers either played no role or made things worse, and you would never know that the army brutalized them horribly. Instead you see Ramy Assam chanting one day on a stage in Tahrir, “The Brotherhood creature / has no place in the square / we made this revolution / why is he hijacking this square!”
The Square tries its best to ignore the Brotherhood entirely. It wants to deal only with its heroes. There is only superficial attention given to the political desires of non-activist Egyptians, the Brotherhood, non-Cairenes, farmers, laborers, factory workers, people in the tourism industry, Christians, and so on. It offers no clues as to why many of the activists abandoned the democracy they fought to establish and have joined forces with the military regime that is now imprisoning journalists, bloggers, activists, and Brotherhood members alike. Egypt has very serious political and economic problems but The Square mentions only a few. You get plenty of passionately delivered arguments about human rights and freedom of speech and that sort of thing, and you get a hefty dose of anti-corruption, anti-authoritarian, anti-fascist political sloganeering, and parts of it are exciting, with dramatic scenes of breathless running through alleys and ranks of chanting, rock-throwing protesters on streets swirling with tear gas. It’s an exhilarating and pretty film, but that’s about it.
Many of the people in the activist crowd The Square set out to celebrate seem to have abandoned the democracy agenda for now, accepting the military government and the crackdown against the Brotherhood, whose members they deem to be terrorists and fascists. On the eve of the third anniversary of the original protests, the government, which contains not a single elected official, released a new constitution, the third in three years. 38 percent of Egypt’s 80 million citizens voted in the referendum, and of those 98 percent voted yes. Regime agents apparently strong-armed people into voting yes, and there is data that suggests few voters participated in rural parts of the country. But this is a significant endorsement for General Sisi. Fewer Egyptians voted during the referendum on Morsi’s constitution in 2012, which only passed with 63 percent approval. The new constitution outlaws parties formed on the basis of religion, including the Muslim Brotherhood, which Sisi’s regime declared a terrorist organization anyway.
After the referendum results were published, the police minister declared: “Egypt has returned to its owners.” President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi? It’s only a matter of time.
Ultimately, the film’s central question—who are the heroes of the revolution?—scarcely seems to matter. Its answer—the liberal democracy activists—seems dubious. And was it even a revolution? Today some activists are in jail or back on the street, protesting against the new regime. Others have joined a large majority of Egyptians to cheer for the army as it withholds many of the freedoms the activists fought and died for.
Peter Hessler, a winner of the Macarthur “Genius” grant who reports for the New Yorker from Cairo, heard a common refrain around the city on the day of the referendum on the army’s constitution: “The country needs to move forward.” There were very few “no” votes that day. On Twitter, journalists joked that a citizen willing to admit he or she voted “no” couldn’t be found anywhere. Very few Egyptians seem to be willing to jeopardize stability and security to experiment with the Western-style values of democracy and accountability preached by the activists.
“I love Sisi,” a 60-year old waving a poster of the military commander recently told a reporter from USA Today. “He saves Egypt from terrorists.” On Friday and Saturday, the third anniversary of the revolution, bombs exploded in the streets of Cairo and pro-Morsi and other anti-regime protestors clashed with police. I watched the news stream in on Twitter as I was waking up in the morning. After the blasts, people marched on the street and the slogans they chanted were not against the interior minister or a police or army chief, but instead they were mostly against terrorism and in support of Sisi. Have we come full circle? Not quite. Across town, a crowd of resilient activists gathered to demand Sisi release their imprisoned colleagues and sympathizers. “This is our life now,” an activist says toward the end of The Square. “We’ll stay in the street.” I wondered if he and his friends were out there, marching, chanting, throwing rocks. Or maybe they’re in jail. The revolution goes on, until it doesn’t.