Tahrir Square, for many Americans, was the site of a spectacular but brief peoples’ power uprising that toppled Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak over a couple of weeks in January/February 2011. Then the news cameras moved on.
The documentary The Square, which was screened for Los Angeles World Affairs Council members on Monday night, stays with the story, following three compelling characters in Cairo over the following two and a half years. The result is a gripping human saga about how hard political change is after 30 years of dictatorship, and at the same time how friendships can flower across deep political divides. By choosing to follow the lives of their three characters, rather than cover every significant news event, Director Jehane Noujaim and producer Karim Amer have made a memorable film, Egypt’s first ever Oscar nomination. Ironically, the government has not yet allowed The Square to be shown in Egypt.
We are first introduced to Ahmed Hassan, a working class youth who takes to the streets in the first protests against Mubarak that converge on Tahrir Square. He meets two other very different characters - Magdy Ashour, a bearded member of the fundamentailist Muslim Brotherhood, and Khalid Abdalla, a highly articulate British-Egyptian actor made famous for his role in the film Kite Runner. Despite their different backgrounds – one poor, one religious, one cosmopolitan - they become friends. Magdy shows his friends the scars of the electric shock torture he – like many other Mulsim Brothers - endured in jail under Mubarak, and says they are all fighting for the same thing – “we are all one hand” as the common slogan had it. For the next two and a half years, Noujaim and Amer will follow these main characters through all the turmoil of Egypt’s political revolutions, all of which are centered on Tahrir Square – “Liberation Square” in English.
LAWAC President Terry McCarthy with Director Jehane Noujaim and Producer Karim Amer
After Mubarak steps down on February 22, 2011, fireworks erupt over Tahrir Square, the demonstrators shed tears of joy... and then they go home, leaving the military in control. Khalid ruefully says “the biggest mistake we made was to leave the Square before power was in our hands.”
And so there are a series of reoccupations of the Square, each one dispersed by the military with increasing force. But the protesters keep returning, realizing they are in the struggle of a lifetime. At one point armored cars are driven at high speed into a crowd, mowing down a number of protesters. Khalid gets a group of protesters together and tells them all to film as much of what goes on as possible – citizen journalism is born. Distrust spreads. An army officer, when asked on camera why the military allowed the revolution, says “we didn’t allow the revolution, we caused it - you kids know nothing!”
When the Muslim Brotherhood joins in the mass occupation of the Square and their leaders start calling for Islamic Rule, Magdy comes under verbal attack from his secular friends who accuse the Muslim Brotherhood of “hijacking” the revolution. Ahmed says to Magdy “I love you, but I hate the Muslim Brotherhood.” But still the three friends continue to gather in the same apartment on the edge of the Square, where they discuss each day’s events.
In the presidential elections in the summer of 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi wins – for a while Magdy’s cause is on top. But as Morsi’s government proves itself too extreme, secular demonstrators take to the Square again, in bigger numbers than before. Magdy tells his friends the Brothers are getting nervous. “We’re afraid if Morsi falls we will go back to jail...I would prefer to be dead - jail is very hard, very hard...”
In June 2013 millions of Egyptians (14 m by some estimates) crowd Tahrir square and the surrounding streets, apparently the biggest protest ever in the history of the world. Morsi is forced out by the army. Ahmed, overjoyed, says “this is our life now - we will stay in the street.” And Khalid, who tends to take a longer view, says “We won’t know if this revolution has succeeded for decades - you cannot achieve the goals of a revolution in just two years.”
Meanwhile Magdy is back in the Square, taking part in a Muslim Brotherhood sit-in to protest Morsi’s removal. The army is threatening to remove them by force. Ahmed calls his friend and says he will come down to see him and show his solidarity. Magdy tells him it is too dangerous, and Ahmed says with a laugh he doesn’t mind - “if they kill me, I can blame you!”
The filmmakers condensed 1,600 hours of film over two and a half years down to a 95 minute documentary. In Cairo their three main characters continue to agitate for real political freedom. “Change is a difficult, slow process,” producer Karim Amer said in a Q&A after the screening. “It is not sexy, it’s like a snail.” Director Noujaim said “We are living in a dark time in Egypt, with all these arrests... These liberties, we are still fighting for them. Our characters say revolutions happen in waves, and they think a third wave is coming.”
As the film makes abundantly clear, the story of The Square is still unfinished.