What Was the Egyptian Revolution?

Yesterday was the third anniversary of the Egyptian revolution. The 18 days between the first Tahrir Square demonstrations–called for January 25, 2011, Police Day, to highlight police brutality–and President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation (compelled by the Army), are hard to remember now. The inclusive, harmonious, democratic carnival of 2011 is long gone, and yesterday’s anniversary was celebrated in the square behind metal detectors, armored vehicles, and a cordon of police to ensure no one less-than-enthused about the military regime, led by Defense Minister El-Sisi, got in.

On the other side of the cordon, the “Martyrs of the Revolution” were honored with a performance of the national anthem by officers from the same police forces that killed them.

The holiday came immediately after a very bad day for Egypt. On Friday, January 24, four bombs went off in greater Cairo. The biggest, a large car bomb in front of the Security Headquarters for the Cairo Governate, devastated the building and severely damaged the neighboring Islamic Art Museum, destroying countless priceless pieces. All told, six died and scores were injured in the attacks. Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (The Guardians of Jerusalem), a Sinai-based militant group, took responsibility for the bombs, but popular blame was directed at the Ikhwan, the Muslim Brotherhood, recently banned and declared a terrorist organization. While the government has never presented credible evidence directly connecting the MB to terror attacks, the bombings were immediately followed by crowds chanting for the execution of the MB and the elevation of Sisi to president. Egypt’s War on Terror is delivering exactly what it promised: more bombs, more repression, more power to the violent, chauvinistic, and stupid on both sides of the political divide. It’s hard to watch.

Incidentally, the security services are still better at killing than the terrorists. At least 49 Egyptians died in clashes yesterday, the vast majority killed by the police.

This farce was sadly predictable, and was on my mind in New York a week ago. I went to see The Squarethe documentary by Jehane Noujaim that tracks the Egyption revolution from January 25, 2011 to August 2013, when encampments of MB supporters that had gathered at the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque and elsewhere following the coup against President Mohamed Morsi were attacked by police and soldiers. Over 1000 people likely died in those massacres.

The film is a beauty. Masterfully shot and edited, it skillfully grounds the huge movements of crowds and the shifting political context in the experiences of a group of young activists who meet on the square. Many of these young idealists move on and off stage, but the most important are three young men. Khalid Abdalla is a British-Egyptian actor and filmmaker (United 93, The Kite Runner) from a family of liberal dissidents. He speaks flawless Queen’s English and mediates between Tahrir and the film’s Western audience. The bearded Magdy Ashour is an MB activist who was jailed and tortured under Mubarak and, once he joins the square, finds himself torn between a desire to support his friends and his loyalty to the secretive, hierarchical Ikhwan and its orders. The real star is Ahmed Hassan, a charismatic young man from Cairo’s working-class Shoubra neighborhood with the sort of open, expressive face that cameras love.


It’s through Ahmed’s eyes that we see daily life in Tahrir during the heady 18 days, the clashes with police and soldiers that followed (including one intimately-shot clash that sees rocks met with tear gas and birdshot and leaves Ahmed wounded in the head and shaking in fear). Ahmed is also the most persuasive spokesman for the revolutionaries, tirelessly speechfying in the square, and appealingly conflicted as he tries to reconcile his friendship with Magdy and his growing hatred of the Ikhwan. Far more than the chilly, serious Khalid, Ahmed is the face of the revolutionary argument the filmmakers are out to advance. Ahmed and the revolutionaries are presented as the passionate, principled, idealistic face of the revolution, opposed to both the Army and the Islamists, better than the grubby politics and dealmaking around them.

It’s an argument that, thus far, has kept the film from being screened in Egypt. It was pulled from the recent Panorama film festival after official permissions were not granted, and has played in no theaters. (It is available on Netflix and on YouTube). I can’t say it’s played a big role in the Egyptian conversation thus far, but I think it fails to speak to the current moment for reasons beyond its lack of distribution.

There are a couple of unacknowledged blind spots in the film’s narrative. The first is its intense focus on, well, The Square. Throughout the film, the revolutionaries lament, “We should never have left the square,” referring the decision to end demonstrations after Mubarak’s fall, only to have to resume them when the military government went back on its promises. This focus is understandable, but it reveals a real flaw in the revolutionary methodology. Huge quantities of time, energy, and blood are spent protecting one sacred space, and the memory of the utopia that briefly thrived there. The Square can be read as a series of failed attempts to get back to “the state of Tahrir” (liberation) that existed during those 18 days.

It’s a tragic project. As the old establishment regains its bearings, the Muslim Brotherhood pursues power for itself, revolutionaries fracture over the path forward, and the public grows weary of uncertainty and disorder, the state of liberation proves impossible to recreate. The constant chasing of that old high, at the expense of leaving the square and engaging in the grubby work of organizing and politicking, ultimately undermines the revolution and leaves it shrunken and weak against the still-formidable remnants of the Mubarak regime (the felool), and the tightly-organized Brotherhood. It’s a tragedy of idealism, of a political state of grace that lasts just long enough to forever haunt those who experienced it.

And that’s the problem with The Square. It refuses to admit that it’s a tragedy. As the months and years grind on, the revolutionaries’ prime antagonist becomes the Brotherhood, especially after it wins the 2012 elections. Tellingly, these victories are quickly glossed over, and the accusation that the Brotherhood only won by appealing to religion and buying voters off with cheap sugar and cooking oil is repeatedly aired. Effective political organizing and retail campaigning are dismissed as illegitimate compared to the collective voice of “the people” in the square. This attitude finds its expression in the Tamarod (Rebel) movement, which in the spring and summer of 2013 collected signatures calling for Morsi to step down or call early elections. The movement came to a head with the huge demonstrations of January 30 and the military coup of July 3. Tamarod is largely celebrated, and while the military regime is treated skeptically, their takeover is nonetheless celebrated exuberantly in the streets.

And this is where the second blind spot emerges. While other clashes between demonstrators and government forces are meticulously documented (the aftermath of the Maspero killings of October 2011 is especially vivid), the film keeps its distance from Rabaa. We only get brief glimpses of the killing of Brotherhood supporters after 30 June, on Ahmed’s laptop screen rather than on our own. We do get to hear an affecting phone conversation between Ahmed and Magdy, who has joined his brothers at Rabaa, as the two try to stay friends on opposite sides of a widening political abyss. Still, the horror at Rabaa goes unseen, and is instead summed up in a title card at the end. Magdy was “violently removed” from Rabaa (whether he was killed, wounded, or jailed we’re not told), where “hundreds were killed by security forces.” It’s a true account, but after the immediacy of the film’s earlier clashes, this newspaper copy feels cold and remote. Meanwhile, “Ahmed and Khalid continue to fight for an alternative to Military or Brotherhood rule.” That fight is, presumably, not going well.

It’s not entirely the fault of the filmmakers that Rabaa gets short shrift. They’re making a retrospective on history that’s still happening, and any ending they decided on was always going to arbitrary. The film was already in color-correction when the massacre occurred. However, the film tries to tack on a hopeful ending that it doesn’t earn. We end by revisiting Ahmed and Khalid, each of whom has scaled back his rhetoric from the heady early days, when they talked about how they would take power when Mubarak falls. In 2013, they instead talk about revolution as an internal state. “We’re not looking for a leader,” says Ahmed, “we’re looking for a conscience.” Like many disappointed revolutionaries before them, they turn from changing the world to changing the self. Understandable, but sad nonetheless. Ending where it does, The Square misses the intense repression, state violence, nationalist hysteria, and violent counterreaction that have been unleashed by the Sisi regime and its idiotic War on Terror. Ahmed and Khalid’s hopeful musings seem misplaced against this backdrop.

Maybe I’m cynical. Unlike many of my friends and colleagues here, who lived through 2011 and experienced some of that grace down in Tahrir, I arrived last August, a week after Rabaa, hustled from the airport through a scared city that was rushing to get home before curfew. I haven’t experienced much of the state of Tahrir, but I’ve seen plenty of repression, jingoism, rationalizations for state violence, and a witch-hunt against dissent that’s come to my university’s door. Perhaps I’m late for the revolution, perhaps I’m missing some great reserve of revolutionary fervor that the Egyptian people have yet to unleash (this could very well be true), but the last scenes of The Square rang false to me. I fear the film, in order to end on a hopeful note, fails to document just how much has be lost since the State of Tahrir, that the idealism it celebrates has been attended by death, disillusion, corruption, and the coopting of the revolution by a supremely ugly nationalist dictatorship.

I often tell friends that we’re living in the future in Egypt. Egypt’s problems–overpopulation, severe resource constraints, massive inequalities in wealth, an overbearing security state, inadequate political institutions, huge numbers of poor and uneducated people who have been largely abandoned by the state and global economy–will be the world’s problems soon, as the global economic system continues to concentrate wealth at the top (The 85 richest individuals now control as much wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion) and global warming threatens the ecological basis of our civilization. We all have an interest in Egypt making it. We should all hope it finds a way to deliver on the revolution’s promises of “Bread, freedom, social justice, and dignity,” but I believe this project will require a cold-eyed assessment of what did and did not work since Mubarak’s fall, and the crafting of an ideology more robust, and more directly concerned with improving the material conditions of regular people, than the platitudes crafted in the square. We, all of us, will soon need to find a path through a very dark tunnel, and false hope doesn’t help.

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