Jehane Noujaim’s documentary The Square captures the urgent intimacy of the ongoing struggle in Egypt in a way that no news outlet ever could. Going beyond the simple headlines, the film drops viewers directly into the heart of the Egyptian revolution as we follow a group of young activists -- Ahmed, Khalid, Magdy, Aida, Ramy, and Ragia – risking their lives for a better future for their country.
Watching them resist corrupted powers, question their alliances, and ultimately reframe the Egyptian narrative is a thrilling reminder of what is at stake not just in Egypt, but in social movements around the world. Egypt’s revolution is often cited as the inspiration for the Occupy movement here in the United States. And although the two movements began with different goals— regime change in Egypt, financial reform in the U.S.— they both shared a larger feeling of disenfranchisement and signaled the return to street politics and the reclaiming of public spaces to force political change. In essence, Tahrir and Occupy represent civic engagement in the wake of failing policies.
The ideals and successes of the two also draw similar criticisms, not just from those in power who are either trying to oppose or hijack their momentum, but also from journalists and media who tend to be allergic to decentralized movements. Without even experiencing the events themselves, they define Tahrir and Occupy in outsiders’ terms, labeling both movements as failures.
Yet The Square digs deeper, showing viewers the anatomy of mass movements and the DIY ethos that drives those within to action. It shows you first-hand that decentralized movements aren’t about the headlines and the talking heads that define them, or, for that matter, the establishments that oppose them. They’re about the people and objectives within that propel them. The Square is an important film-- not just about Egypt, but about freedom movements and social change for an entire generation.
The Square is a snapshot of a greater uprising, a social shift that is interconnected with Occupy and others like it all over the world. And while some have turned their backs on protesters within both movements, The Square is a vital reminder of the lessons that Tahrir’s revolutionaries taught Occupy and the world, inspiring the disenfranchised to to turn to the streets to amplify their voices.
1. Change Doesn’t Happen Overnight
The American Revolution took eight bloody years before it led to independence. It took the United States 144 years to give women the right to vote. It has been fifty years since the March on Washington, and Americans are still fighting for civil rights for all. Radical social change is often the result of years of struggle. Instead of measuring political change in tangibles, look for it in the more subtle shifts of attitude and awareness of ordinary people. As one of the revolutionaries in The Square notes, watching children play “revolution” in the park – their innocent games mimicking the struggle of Egyptians for freedom and democracy – is the best indication of how deeply Tahrir has affected Egyptian society. It may take these very children to enact lasting change in Egypt. But it will come.
2. Revolution Is About Showing Up
Sign your petitions, send out your tweets – that’s all great when it comes to spreading the word globally. But real change happens on the ground. In Tahrir, protesters were targeted, beaten, and shot at, and yet the always returned, undaunted and ready to take on the powers that be. “The biggest mistake we made was that we left the square before the power was in our hands,” Ahmed Hassan laments in The Square. Revolution doesn’t happen from a distance. It requires you to put in the effort at the front line.
3. Start By Changing the Narrative
“The battle isn’t just in the rocks and the stones,” says Khalid Abdalla, the English-Egyptian actor who became the voice of the revolutionaries to the Western world. “The battle is in the images. The battle is in the stories.” In other words, revolutions aren’t just about who runs the country. They’re about who owns the narrative – the people in power or the people on the street? Whether in music, in media, in murals and graffiti, creative expression is vital, because it is how people give voice to their aspirations when the normal lines of communication are monopolized by the government. “A lot of people didn't feel that they belonged in Egypt during the Mubarak era,” human rights lawyer and Egyptian protester Ragia Omran explains, “so they never bothered to get involved or care about their community, but initiatives all over the country are reflection of this spirit.”
4. It’s Not About Democracy vs. Islam
It’s a pundit cliché to pit Islam against democracy. Talking heads love to talk about how Islamists are a threat to freedom and democracy, but they rarely if ever put them in the greater context of extremism, which exists in all religious faiths. Remember 90% of Egypt is Muslim. That means an overwhelming majority of Tahrir’s protesters, against both military rule and religious rule, are Muslims. When it comes to freedom, no one singular religion is the enemy. In Tahrir, “there was no such thing as Muslim or Christian,” Ahmed Hassan explains. “We were all present. We were one hand.”
5. Human Rights Violations Affect Us All
As a microcosm, Tahrir is about the future of Egypt. But as we learned in 9/11, the success or failure of democracy in a country like Egypt can have ripples across the world. One of Tahrir’s biggest protectors has been its international attention. The responsibility to keep Egypt in the narrative is a global one, because the more people tune in from abroad, the more accountable and transparent reform has to become.
6. If You Want The Story, Go To The People
The number one rule in understanding a revolution is to never believe the officials’ narrative of events. This is especially true when it comes to state-run media, which has the incentive of staying loyal to the regime in power. “Politics is not the same as revolution,” Khalid Abdalla explains. “If you want to play politics, you have to compromise.” If you want to know the real story, if you want to understand Egypt, you listen to the people on the ground, not the people in the government. Ahmed Hassan puts it best: “Only we can tell our stories.”
Samiezade’-Yazd is an Iranian writer and editor whose expertise falls into two categories: contemporary art/performance and the Middle East. Together, the two give her a unique perspective on the depth of a region that is usually overshadowed by its politics.