The Square: The Human Story Behind the Egyptian Revolution

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Egyptian activist Ramy Essam (R) in Jehane Noujaim’s documentary THE SQUARE. Courtesy of Noujaim Films.

By Margaret Barthel

At the heart of every nation there is always an iconic communal place –a symbolic and physical space where we define and redefine our character and priorities as a citizenry. In the U.S., we go to the National Mall in reverence, in solidarity, and in protest. In Egypt, it is Cairo’s Tahrir Square that holds the essence and spirit of the nation at large, a status that made it a major focal point for large-scale protests throughout the tumultuous Egyptian Revolution, which continues on for a third year this month.

Tahrir, or “Liberation,” Square and its role in the Revolution is the subject of acclaimed documentary “The Square,” which has won the Audience Award at the Sundance and Toronto International film festivals, and was recently nominated for an Oscar in the category of Best Documentary Feature. The film, which was directed by Jehane Noujaim and produced by Karim Amer, will be available on Netflix and in select theaters on January 17th.

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Making “The Square”

When protests supporting Arab Spring movements began breaking out in countries throughout North Africa and the Middle East, Noujaim and Amer –both Egyptian Americans — knew exactly where they wanted to be: in Cairo, in the Square, filming a powerful example of what Amer calls “the rise of people power” throughout the world.

The Egyptian Revolution began on January 25th, 2011, as a movement against President Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorial regime, which had imposed a state of martial law on Egypt for 30 years. Initial protests drew a diverse group of supporters to Tahrir Square, including secular youth and underground religious and political organization, the Muslim Brotherhood. Noujaim and Amer formed an all-Egyptian film crew — it was essential to them that the crew want to be in the Square anyway, as protestors — and got to work.

Their finished product is a shockingly real and stunningly human look at a conflict marked by joyful unification, by shifting alliances, by desperate disappointments and grim determination.

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Khalid Abdalla (L) and Ahmed Hassan (R) in THE SQUARE. Photo credit: Netflix/Noujaim Films

The Cast

“The Square” primarily draws its humanity from its characters. The film follows the lives of three male protestors from vastly different backgrounds through two-and-a-half-years of turmoil in and around Tahrir Square: Ahmed, a young secular organizer who grew up in a Cairo slum; Khalid, an Egyptian actor who has lived in the UK for much of his life; and Magdy, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, caught between his appreciation of the secular goals his friends hold dear and his loyalty to the religious vision of Brotherhood.

The broader story of the Egyptian Revolution emerges from within the film’s more intimate tale of the three men’s emotional struggles throughout the conflict. Ahmed explains (with Amer translating) that he was “made in the Square” — a sentiment of identity that all three characters seem to share. Yet, through it all, Ahmed, Khalid, and Magdy display what Noujaim refers to as “beautiful optimism . . . even when they’re in the absolute thick of it.”

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Egyptian activist Ahmed Hassan in Jehane Noujaim’s documentary THE SQUARE. Courtesy of Noujaim Films.

The Scene of the Revolution

“In the absolute thick of it” is one way to describe the situation in revolutionary Cairo. Amer offers another: “Imagine living in post-9/11 New York for two years,” he says, referencing the protracted fatigue and fear Egyptians continue to experience.

If “The Square” is any indication, Amer’s characterization of daily life in Cairo isn’t far off the mark. Although the revolution began in unity with protests against the fascist Mubarak regime in January 2011, after the army’s February takeover of the government–originally welcomed by the protestors–the movement fractured along religious and secular lines, with the Muslim Brotherhood advocating immediate elections and secular protestors hoping to form viable political parties before votes were cast. In the absence of full-fledged parties, the newly legal Muslim Brotherhood swept to victory in the winter parliamentary election and the spring presidential election. Secular protestors, having been violently ousted from the Square by the army earlier in the fall of 2011, returned to the Square in the spring of 2012 to protest President Mohammed Morsi’s religious and dictatorial methods. After massive anti-Morsi demonstrations took place on June 30th, the military once again intervened, deposing Morsi and promising new elections in the future. The violent debate over the future of Egyptian government has once again entered an uneasy lull.

Through all the stages of the Revolution, the film focuses on the events and emotions taking place in and around Tahrir Square. It captures the moments of euphoria; for instance, at the beginning of the protests when the crowds declare triumphantly that “we have taken the Square!” and the moments of deep disappointment such as when Ahmed, in a disgusted rage, declares: “This is not my Square” in response to soldiers planting flowers in the Square, having forcibly removed its community of protestors.

The film offers its viewers few moments of respite from the chaos of the Revolution. Since the footage was shot by a crew of protestors, including the film characters themselves, a good deal of it features the front lines of the action. Ahmed (translated by Amer) explains that “when he saw the camera, he challenged it to see what it could do to resonate change”–which it does effectively in “The Square” by presenting viewers with glimpse after glimpse of the human story behind the headlines.

Many of the images, particularly later in the film, are undeniably graphic. Noujaim says her decision to include disturbing footage comes from her desire to “put [her audience] in the shoes” of the protestors. To help viewers understand “what drove Ahmed to go running into the streets with a rock . . . to face an entire army; “you have to show the images that those people are experiencing everyday,” she explains.

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Ahmed Hassan in THE SQUARE. Photo credit: Netflix/Noujaim Films

Giving Hope

Despite the problems that plague the Egyptian Revolution, “The Square” ends on a note of hope, highlighting the growth of citizen awareness and empowerment. Noujaim paraphrases: “This is a very different country than it was three years ago . . . Everybody has gone through a political education.”

Ahmed and Ragia Omran, a prominent human rights lawyer and recent recipient of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, believe that the Egyptian political awakening is especially visible in the art of the Revolution, which the film showcases. Ragia links what she calls a “burst of creativity” with Egyptians’ developing desire to “claim ownership” of their country. Ahmed is confident that “that [the revolutionary] feeling cannot go back now” after having been voiced creatively.

While the Egyptian government has not yet given “The Square” a commercial license for screenings in Egypt, the documentary has already touched Egyptian-Americans and others concerned by the seemingly endless rifts in the Revolution. Noujaim was surprised to find that “the caring and love between Ahmed and Magdy in the end” gave American audiences of widely differing loyalties within the conflict a hope that they [the viewers] haven’t felt in a very long time.

Noujaim and Amer also hope that the film will become a “conversation starter,” creating a human connection for people who don’t know much about the Revolution. They speak eloquently about the importance of portraying sympathetic Middle Eastern characters to Western audiences and the need for international attention towards events in Egypt, which they believe will lend the Revolution power and protection.

With Amer as his translator, Ahmed offers a final thought: “There is a conscience in Egypt, and that conscience deserves a government that will respect it.” “The Square,” above all, is a testament to that.

Watch the Trailer:

 

Margaret BarthelAbout the Writer

Margaret Barthel recently graduated from Smith College with a degree in English Language and Literature. Among other things, she’s a reader, writer, history buff, and outdoors enthusiast with deep interests in feminism, politics, and the environment. A semester abroad studying at Oxford University and exploring continental Europe, in addition to plenty of quirky family vacations, are to blame for her love of travel. Find more of her work at margaretbarthel.wordpress.com.

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