The Secular Square


By Maurice Chammah

Two years after they began, the Egyptian revolutionary uprisings of early 2011 would have been an easy, ripe subject for a documentary film; the riveting images of crowds running and tear gas and fists raised, demands made and met, a dictator of three decades crumbling before the empowered masses.

On the other hand, the politics of Egypt’s last several years would provide a vexing topic; the numerous competing protagonists, the bureaucratic complexity, the subtle historical influences of every twist and turn, the moral compromises made by every participant.

The Oscar-nominated film ‘The Square,’ which premiered at Sundance a year ago and on Netflix last month, basks in a celebration of the secular-minded activists who became the dominant voice of the 2011 uprisings. Chief among them is Ahmed Hassan, a wiry, boyish speechmaker who exults in his movement’s triumphs and despairs when things turn sour. Filmmaker Jehane Noujaim, who partially grew up in Egypt, lingers on his impassioned pleas. “When we were united we brought down the dictator,” he tells a crowd at Tahrir Square at one point. “How do we succeed now? By uniting once again.”

As a chronicle of political enthusiasm, ‘The Square’ succeeds gorgeously. But it falls prey to much of the tunnel vision that marked the activists’ own transition from stardom to irrelevance. The activists tried to speak for a highly religious public, failing to understand the appeal of the Muslim Brotherhood and more fundamentalist Islamists like the Salafi movement. By not engaging with these groups, they paved the way for the military elite, also a primarily secular group, to divide and conquer. Noujaim herself identifies strongly with the secular, and mostly wealthy revolutionary protagonists — like her, they speak English and identify with American cultural norms — and it’s tempting to see the film’s blind spots as her own discomforts with the religious realities of her country.

Her main character Ahmed, the son of an illiterate street vendor in one of Cairo’s poorer neighborhoods, who recalls selling lemons in order to pay for his education. You can tell that Noujaim made a conscious decision not to focus her film solely around the wealthier, more cosmopolitan activists that constantly pepper their speech with English, though her secondary character is Khalid Abdalla, the British-born actor who starred in United 93 and The Kite Runner. He flew in when the revolution broke out, so although his passion is authentic, his stakes are chosen ones.

While Ahmed throws rocks and gets shot, Khalid posts violent clips to YouTube with his silver MacBook. He would make for an awkward lead in a film about desperation, but he bonds with Ahmed and other Egyptians, speaking for them in perfect English to Anderson Cooper and other international news outlets. It’s difficult to imagine how differently the revolution would have looked in a country without this class of individual (and it was Mubarak, ironically enough, who was largely responsible for promoting that class through institutions like the American University in Cairo, which his wife and son attended).

Although neither Khalid nor Ahmed articulate much of a vision for the Egypt they’d like to see emerge from the revolution, there is an unspoken secularism that ties these two young men together. Many young men of a lower class background in Egypt are pious Muslims, but you never see Ahmed enter a mosque or bow in prayer. Certainly Khalid never does so.

This sets both characters apart from the film’s third protagonist, Magdy Ashour. He is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, though he criticizes the group as often as he defends it. We’re told he went to prison multiple times for his involvement in the Brotherhood and his family gets some kind of support from them, but Magdy consistently agrees with Khalid and Ahmed when they complain about how the Brotherhood has sold them out for power while using Tahrir Square as a political bargaining chip. “Honestly I’m upset about their political tactics and gains. They should not be here for a political agenda or gains,” Khalid says. Ahmed’s voiceover lowers to a whisper as he describes how “they left us alone in the square to get beaten up, arrested, to die alone.” What he doesn’t say is that, by then, most Egyptians agreed with the Brotherhood that the continued presence of protesters at Tahrir was more a nuisance than a necessity. Gallup polls found that while more than 83% of Egyptians had supported ousting Mubarak after the revolution, by November 2011, 85% believed continued protests were bad for the country.

The Square could have been a film about the difficulties of translating a revolution into politics, especially in a country where Islamism remains in limbo—officially repressed but unofficially popular. Certainly some of the most subtle and tragic statements made by the film’s characters are about the problem of politics after a revolution. “If you want to play politics, you have to compromise,” Khalid laments in a rare moment of self-reflection, more than halfway through the film. “And we’re not good at this at all.”

“All of the politicians are failures,” Ahmed exclaims, walking alone in an early morning dreamscape, a blurry edged camera frame following him through the eerily empty streets. It is difficult to tell if Noujaim is making an intentional decision here, but the effect is to remind us that these revolutionaries have little sense of a real past or future, just an empty, righteous present, a street in which to shout.

Noujaim has responded to critics who say the film doesn’t capture Egypt’s complicated political reality by saying that she wanted to focus on her subjects and their perspectives, in the end choosing to make a tightly-focused portrait of idealism and disappointment. She succeeds in this. The problem is that the characters she chooses to focus upon have little of substance to say about their country.

The unspoken secularism guiding Noujaim’s lens leads the film into an inconsistent view of the Brotherhood — they are individual human beings, as evidenced by Magdy, but also a “fascist” movement — and an incoherent one of the military, who is celebrated when they kick out Mubarak and Morsi and hated when they run protesters over with their vehicles and lob American-made tear gas into their crowds.

Magdy is by far the most compelling character, torn between the edicts handed down by Brotherhood elders, under pressure to provide for his five children (nobody in this film, it seems, has a job to get back to). He is torn as Egypt is torn. We watch as he berates his own son for having joined a Brotherhood attack on protesters. A woman in his family accuses him of abandoning his revolutionary friends. “There is a fog in this country,” is all Magdy can say in response. We watch him comfort his daughter, who cries as she mourns that the revolution changed so little. He smiles weakly. “These are the gains of the revolution,” he says with a pained smile. “She’s filled with tears.”

Magdy’s experience captures far more of Egypt’s internal contradictions — how to incorporate Islam into Egyptian political life, how to preserve political will throughout decades of oppression and official banishment, how to stay true to yourself and provide for a family — than those of Khalid or Ahmed. He should have been the main character, and it’s unfortunate that Noujaim could not film him interacting directly with his Brotherhood superiors. (Senior members of the Brotherhood are never on camera, and though this may not be her fault, it feels like a telling omission).

But Magdy can’t be the main character. His lifestyle is too distant from that of Noujaim’s target audience. His beard and sense of political obligation is too alienating. And aside from Magdy, Noujaim can’t find a way to humanize the massive segment of Egyptian society that finds much of its daily meaning in Islam. We’re half an hour into the film before we hear the call to prayer, in a country where the call to prayer is an ever-present background to daily life. When we do hear it, the sound heralds sinister images. We see thousands bowing in prayer. Men with big beards and white robes are walking towards the camera. Later on, the secular characters compare their situation to Iran’s revolution, suggesting a collective sense of relief that the country isn’t ruled by mullahs.

President Mohamed Morsi’s failed rule, which lasted a year and in no way represented Iranian theocracy, is mostly glossed over as Ahmed stares sickeningly at the Islamist president delivering a speech. He delivers one of his own:

“What is a revolution? Revolution is a culture of a people. You give them ownership of their freedom. We introduced a culture of protesting. Now they can oppose the ruler, whoever they are. If we predict what’s next, the army is coming. Let’s not fool each other. But do you think the army will act in the same way it did?

Ahmed, just as much as the director, is searching for some greater sense of success from the rubble of a violent political chess game he doesn’t understand. After Egypt’s newest leader, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, announces Morsi’s ouster, Ahmed excitedly tells us, “Morsi has fallen. So did the army and Mubarak.” Except that El-Sisi is the army. Ahmed, like many revolutionaries about the Brotherhood’s religious agenda, sold them out, creating a kind of symmetry with the way the Brotherhood went behind their back to make deals with the military early on.

It shines a new light on the most devastating statement in the entire film, made by a military officer. Noujaim impressively gets a camera next to him in a car driving down a busy street. He is asked whether the military protected the revolution. “We didn’t protect the revolution,” he says. “We made it happen. You kids don’t know anything.”

You kids.

Maurice Chammah is a writer and musician in Austin, Texas who studied journalism in Egypt as a Fulbright student, 2011-2012. More about him at He writes regularly for The Revealer.

With support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.

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