Turmoil in Tahrir Square | Freedom House

Turmoil in Tahrir Square

< back to Freedom At Issue Blog

By Daniel Calingaert, Executive Vice President

In Egypt, the “revolution is coming no matter what,” says Ahmed Hassan, protagonist of the documentary film The Square, which will be released tomorrow. The film tells the interwoven stories of activists who converge on Tahrir Square in early 2011 for the mass protests that brought down President Hosni Mubarak, then carry on the struggle for freedom as the revolution veers off course under an interim military government and the presidency of Mohamed Morsi. Is Ahmed making a political prediction or merely expressing the hope of a committed revolutionary? This is a central question for Egypt today.

Ahmed conveys the deep convictions, emotional intensity, and stubborn resolve of many young Egyptian activists who are trying to change their country for the better. He understands what the revolution is up against but is determined to see it succeed, and he presses on.

He embodies the new Egypt—a youthful population fed up with the old system and its injustices, connected through social media, and willing to risk injury or worse to make their voices heard. While many Egyptians may remain resigned to military or strongman rulers who claim to provide a semblance of order and stability, others speak out forcefully and demand a say in how their country is run.

Yet as much as Egypt has changed, the regime has stayed the same. The arrogance of the military, as seen up close and personal in this film, is quite stunning. General Bekheit brushes off a photograph of a citizen who was shot at a demonstration with the far-fetched claim that “this is not an army bullet,” and when a woman confronts him about the beating she suffered at the demonstration, he makes an empty promise, replete with grand gestures, to find and punish the perpetrators. Major Haytham is asked if the army protected the revolution. He replies with a smug grin, “We didn’t protect the revolution, we made it happen. You kids don’t know anything.”  The message is clear: The military runs the show, it will stay in charge, and it
doesn’t much care what the “kids” think.

The Muslim Brotherhood, as depicted in The Square, pursues its own interests, often at the expense of the revolution. Brotherhood members show up en masse to an antimilitary protest, turn it into an Islamist demonstration, and later leave when their leaders cut a deal with the military government. After the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi is elected president, he makes a brazen power grab, claiming greater authority than even Mubarak had, and his supporters appear on television explicitly threatening violence against the new president’s opponents.

Magdy Ashour, the Brotherhood member featured in the film, forms genuine friendships with secular activists and is torn between the Brotherhood’s directives and his personal desire to stay true to the revolution. He is surprised and upset to see video footage of Brotherhood members beating and shooting at protesters outside Morsi’s presidential palace in December 2012. Yet his loyalty clearly lies with the Brotherhood. That kind of loyalty made the organization an enormously powerful political force and held it together through past waves of arrests, shifting political alignments in the early months of the revolution, and the later outburst of public anger at President Morsi.

The Square brilliantly captures the intensity of revolutionary action on the streets of Cairo, the political divisions among Egyptians that reemerge after the fall of Mubarak, and the hopes and fears of citizens struggling for a better future. The human costs of the revolution, as shown in this film, are high. Revolutionaries dodge bullets at their protests, suffer harsh beatings at the hands of security forces, are betrayed by former allies in the Muslim Brotherhood, and at times feel abandoned by an Egyptian public that doesn’t always share their outrage at the injustices perpetrated by the military.

The protagonists of the film are insightful guides into the belly of the revolution, but are they the revolution’s protagonists? Once Mubarak is gone, they are more often responding to events than shaping them. The revolutionaries seem to have no plan beyond protest after protest and no leader of a stature that commands their respect. By the end of the film, after the military has ousted Morsi in the July 2013 coup, Ahmed is no longer “looking for a leader.” Instead he is trying to create a “conscience within the society.”

Plans and leaders capable of moving Egypt toward democracy are absent from the film and, to a great extent, from the country at the present time. This absence is in stark contrast to other films depicting democratic breakthroughs, such as No, which tells the story of the media campaign that defeated Chile’s military dictator, Augusto Pinochet, in a 1988 referendum, or Bringing Down a Dictator, which shows the strategy behind the nonviolent mass movement that defeated Serbian dictator Slobodan Milošević at the ballot box in 2000.

Without democratic leaders of great stature and without coherent political strategies to reform or replace the regime, the prospects for genuine change in Egypt look quite grim at the moment. Even the revolutionaries concede that freedom and justice will be a long time in coming. But they’re in the struggle for the long haul. Egypt has changed. And sooner or later, the revolution will come.

PHOTO AND MOVIE TRAILER COURTESY 'The Square' | www.thesquarefilm.com

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

Share this story