Most of the Egyptians fighting and dying in the country’s ongoing revolution are anonymous to the outside world. In Jehane Noujaim’s documentary The Square, we meet some of the people who made the revolution.
On August 14, 2013, as Egyptian police were in the middle of perpetrating the largest single massacre in modern Egyptian history, Mahmoud Abdel Hakim wrote on his Twitter account: “Tomorrow we’ll die the same death.” Three months later, during a protest commemorating the second anniversary of the battle of Mohammed Mahmoud Street, which marked a decisive moment in our revolutionary struggle, Mahmoud was shot and killed by police in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
A charismatic, intelligent 22-year-old engineering student, Mahmoud could have easily been a character in The Square, Jehane Noujaim’s street-level documentary that takes us past the wide shots of drifting tear gas and inside the personal struggles over Egypt’s fate. Perhaps if we watched the film closely enough, frame by frame, we might even spot him in the background in one scene or another. Mahmoud was there in Tahrir Square when millions across the country rose up to demand (and they still demand) an end to oppression, to impoverishment, to marginalization and the abusive neglect of the state. Even after the initial 18-day uprising that saw the generals and tycoons abandon President Hosni Mubarak, Mahmoud continued to take to the streets, fighting for the fall of a regime that promised him no future.
Amidst the graffiti that has filled the walls of Egypt, been erased and been written again over the past three years, two tags in particular are repeated, hastily scrawled in freehand: “Glory to the unknown” and ”Freedom for the detained whose names we do not know.” Indeed, how can we keep track of so many names, of the over 2,000 killed and the 20,000 arrested just since the July 3 coup last year that seized on the popular resentment toward the Muslim Brotherhood’s failures and increasing authoritarianism by restoring those same generals to power. How many of these unknown and unnamed, mostly Brotherhood but increasingly secular, liberal and leftist activists among them, could have been in the film?
Most of the earliest, most shocking video that came out of the Egyptian revolution was of these unknowns: one standing in front of a water cannon, another opening his jacket and baring his chest to police before he is shot in cold blood, a masked teen on a motorbike carrying wounded from the front lines to a field hospital and others like this. We see only their backs in the video because they are the furthest forward, past the eye of the camera and first to meet the police or moving too fast for us to take account of them.
These anonymous individuals are deserving of our respect, remembered by the glory of their selfless acts. But as Egypt’s trauma goes on, we confront the fact we increasingly know the names of the heroes, victims and activists the revolution creates. Of its villains, too.
In recent months the list of arrested, detained and imprisoned has become deeply familiar. Friends, many credited with organizing and championing the revolution or telling its stories, are arrested and imprisoned. Alaa Abd el Fattah. Ahmed Maher. Ahmed Douma. Nazly Hussein. Abdalla El Shaamy — and too many more. You can look these names up, learn about the people behind them, see the trumped-up charges they face, how long they have been imprisoned and what abuse and even torture they have faced.
We know them not just because they are our friends, because they are tech-savvy or audience-friendly, but because they are most often the people who have spent so much time and effort fighting for dignity, social justice and freedom from oppression. Even if we wish to admit that they are all flawed, even as we have had disagreements with them, to know that they are targets of the very repression they seek to end demands solidarity.
Beyond the din of Tahrir’s protests, Mahmoud Abdel Hakim was a member of Neighbourhoods in Name Only, an informal coalition of activists, engineers, urbanists and students who worked on community organizing and development. Their mission was to help Egypt’s most marginalized and poorest residents organize around issues of basic services and a dignified place to call home. The word used by the group for neighbourhoods is a double entendre. It also reads: “Alive in name alone.”
The last I heard, Magdy al Attar, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and a central character in The Square, was in hiding after the State Security Investigations Service came to his house looking for him and confiscated his computer equipment. I remember a night in 2011, sitting with Magdy during a period of respite from tear gas and birdshot, hearing about his struggles with the Brotherhood and his treatment at the hands of State Security during the long Mubarak years, which included torture and a mock execution. These experiences were such an inevitable part of his life that State Security officers didn’t bother arresting him but simply called him twice a month asking him to report to them at the station.
For all the differences between us, and even as recent events have caused him to rally defensively around his Brotherhood identity, I know that Magdy’s mistreatment has instilled in him a deep sense of justice. There are, I am sure, others in the Brotherhood just like him. That does not exculpate the organization, which we saw appropriate many of the same means of repression once in power. But as we watch the cycle of oppression and torture repeating itself, we must struggle even more to rehabilitate this sense of justice that has been drowned out by the false choice between Brotherhood and Military.
Though the revolution has not yet
suceeded, it has left nothing untouched.
Repression is unsustainable. Things will change in Egypt. It is not blind optimism or naïveté to think so, but an inevitability driven by a logic of necessity. The regime cannot maintain itself as it used to. The shrill chorus of nationalism and propaganda we are witnessing now has a desperate quality to it, as frightened older generations attempt to hold on to their perquisites and stand feebly in opposition to demands for change that they fundamentally fail to understand.
The moral panic that set in during the last decade of Mubarak’s regime continues, fearful of youth and made more violent by an emboldened police force seeking themselves to recover a lost honour and respect. But this revanchism only breeds more resistance, more rebelliousness, from those who will not stop until the old regime has been pulled down and a new future becomes possible.
Amid this last gasp of the old regime, and after all that we have seen in the past three years, it is difficult to evaluate or even watch The Square. At times, the film seems too positive, too optimistic. At others, it is clear that its focus on the symbolism of Tahrir gives short shrift to the huge amount of work being done by activists outside the square, like that of Neighbourhoods in Name Only. Even the film’s main characters are not spared this elision. We see only a fraction of the work and effort that they spent to bring about change.
To say that The Square is a flawed film is not to insult it. The attempt to capture any historical moment, not only so soon after its beginnings but well before it has even begun to end, must inevitably be partial and inconclusive. The events that began with the protests on January 25, 2011, have roots in decades-old struggles. And everything after them has changed. Though the revolution has not yet succeeded, it has left nothing untouched. Even the old regime has been forced to change its discourse as it attempts to maintain power, adopting a laughable parody of the radical new language that will ultimately sweep it away.
But where the film does succeed is in those moments when it shows us that another world is possible. Despite the maelstrom surrounding them, it is through the personal struggles of the characters and their partial views of events that we see the truly revolutionary moment that breaks with history. These subjective views, while incomplete, are perhaps the only way to truly understand the magnitude of what took place and to recognize the power that these events still hold, despite the seeming lack of concrete change. They come with the dawning awareness that at the moment people begin to organize their own lives, futures and commons, they can reject the idea that politics is a game for elites only.
At the moment, the outside world may see only an Egypt seeking quick, dirty fixes in a desperate search for stability. But the spirit of January 25 and of Mohammed Mahmoud Street and the many struggles we do not even have names for, and of the sacrifices of all those unknowns, still holds sway in the promise of a new world. The Square shows us how people freely chose to take to the streets to risk their lives for a world not governed by puppet dictators, unaccountable financial institutions and thugs masquerading as State Security. And it shows us that the sweep of revolution is made up of people, both brave and flawed, struggling to resist the forces that buffet them and who, though they have not yet arrived at a better society, have at least revealed the foundation of justice upon which it could be built.
When people first found themselves in Tahrir late at night on January 28, 2011, after the police had been broken, the greatest surprise of all was not in their numbers or even the achievement in having resisted the police, but that in this space, now made truly public, they could meet one another for the first time, engage in a radical commons where their old identities became changed or even done away with. What camera can capture the moment when someone first becomes a citizen, not of a state but of a society, when one first realizes that beneath the accumulated pain of the old world, there is something new and unexplored, something worth dying and even living for?