When filmmaker Jehane Noujaim landed in Egypt in early 2011 and started shooting, the protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square had already captured the world's imagination. She and her crew seized on the opportunity to record history as it happened, linking up with revolutionaries whose lives and struggles they would chronicle for more than two years. The powerful result, "The Square," was nominated for an Academy Award on Thursday and premieres in theaters and on Netflix on Friday.
"The Square" tracks Egypt's turbulent and dramatic course through the eyes of several Egyptian activists. It does this so well that, watching it, one feels deeply the idealism, courage and sacrifice that made those early protests so inspiring, as well as the horror and shock of crackdowns under the military and Islamist governments that followed President Hosni Mubarak's downfall. But the film ultimately also shares, and in some ways stands to compound, the protest movement's failures. Rather than reaffirming the pluralistic ideals that made early 2011 so hopeful, it contributes to Egypt's poisonous atmosphere of polarization and distrust by its one-sided and often polemical portrayal of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In the first year or two after ousting Mubarak, the protest movement's failures stemmed mostly from inexperience and insularity. As Eric Trager of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy wrote in The New Republic, activists failed not only to move outside Tahrir Square and into politics but even to "really engage anyone who doesn’t fit their general profile: young, semi-cosmopolitan, and vaguely leftist." Egyptians from different parts of society were ignored or, at times, rejected.
The film does acknowledge this, to a degree, but ultimately it endorses the activists' view that, as Trager puts it, they are "simply too principled for politics." As "The Square" producer Karim Amer put it when an audience member raised this at a recent screening I attended, he doesn't see direct politics as the protesters' responsibility. "How many members of the Black Panthers ended up in Congress?" he said, though many U.S. civil rights activists did end up in Congress, including former Black Panther Bobby Rush. His analogy seemed to underscore the film's tendency to be remarkably generous toward its activists subjects while repeatedly and uncritically recycling the darkest stereotypes and conspiracy theories about supporters of one of Egypt's largest political movements: the Muslim Brotherhood.
The viewer receives the strong impression that the Brotherhood did not arrive in force until more than six months after Mubarak's fall, a flood of unwelcome Islamist men taking over the square, although in fact Brotherhood members were crucially present during the very first weeks of the uprising. "The Brotherhood wasn't here last week," one of the activists says when some are first shown, more than a third of the way into the film. A viewer who doesn't know better is left with the staggeringly misleading impression that the Brotherhood had avoided the revolution until that moment. And rather than hearing from the Brotherhood members at Tahrir, we are shown long-distance shots of them at prayer, as if this is all we need to know.
The Brotherhood's role in the revolution itself is not just excised, it is rewritten into something much more nefarious. In the first weeks of military rule, the Brotherhood entered into talks with the new government about forming a transitional government. But the film makes the bizarre choice to instead describe this as cutting "secret deals with the military," the first of many intimations of conspiracy that the Brotherhood and the military are clandestine partners in subjugating the people of Egypt. The response of a Brotherhood member who is present when this accusation is made is simply edited out; instead, we jump straight to the liberal activist's retort: "I'm upset about their political tactics and games. They should not be here for political agenda or gains."
Ahmed Hassan, an otherwise idealistic young revolutionary, explains that the Brotherhood has so many supporters because it bribes them with cooking oil and bread and brainwashes them with religion. Again and again, we are shown liberal activists scolding Brotherhood members for vague transgressions such as "lies" and "creating division," but rarely are we shown the response. Later, it is implied that the 2012 election of Brotherhood-backed Mohamed Morsi to the presidency is illegitimate because he received only 51 percent of the vote.
Another bizarre moment comes in the film's retelling of the events of August 2011, when troops cleared Tahrir Square. This is portrayed as a tragic setback and a direct result of Muslim Brotherhood betrayal. "When the Brotherhood got what they wanted from the military, they left us alone in the square to get beaten up, arrested, to die alone," Hassan narrates over footage of troops moving in. At the time, however this was widely considered a sign of growing Egyptian impatience with the protesters, whom many Egyptians believed were clinging to the square long after their presence had ceased to be productive. I was in Cairo at the time and heard this from everyone I spoke to outside Tahrir, including liberals who had participated in the initial revolution. When security forces cleared the square, grateful onlookers cheered them on and kissed their cheeks as they passed. That the protesters had so alienated their fellow Egyptians as to actually engender sympathy for security forces is ignored in the film, in lieu of casting conspiratorial aspersions on the Brotherhood.
The film does spend substantial time with a Muslim Brotherhood member named Magdy Ashour, a friend of the film's other activist stars, who is portrayed sympathetically and even affectionately. Ashour discusses, at length, his imprisonment and torture under Mubarak and his enduring loyalty to the Brotherhood. Unfortunately, the filmmakers do not follow him into the Brotherhood's world. We typically see him either at home or with secular activists. He is often cast as almost a sort of defector from the organization, shown defending it meekly, conceding the liberals' criticisms or voicing them himself.
To be clear, many of those criticisms are merited, particularly as they apply to the period under Morsi's rule. The Brotherhood was often self-interested, and Morsi's government was in fact incompetent and authoritarian, as the film accurately chronicles. But it's jarring to see the film air so many doubts and questions about the Brotherhood, often before it ever took power, while never really addressing the many errors of the liberal protest movement that is its primary focus.
In interviews, Noujaim has gone even further, describing the Brotherhood as a "fascist organization" and arguing that it was the continuation of military rule, if not the military's co-conspirator. She told Al Jazeera's Evan Hill, "[Featured activist Khalid Abdalla] also says this beautifully, that people often say that the struggle is between the military on one side and the Brotherhood on the other side, but really what the struggle should be is between these organized fascist movements on one side, the Brotherhood and the military, versus these disorganized social movements on the other side."
The activists, then, are cast as the sole voices not just of revolutionary ideals, but of the Egyptian people themselves. The Brotherhood's millions of supporters, it seems, don't count. Hill, in his story about the film and its reception, wrote of its proximity to liberal activists that it "takes on much of their idealistic and naive attitude, at the expense, some would argue, of the truth." His story continues:
Some of the same young Egyptians who protested alongside Noujaim's activists now criticize what they see as the film's rose-tinted bias and oversimplification of an ongoing revolutionary moment that is far from pure or straightforward.
Amira Mikhail, who volunteered with human rights groups after the uprising and now studies law at American University in Washington, D.C., said the film "fell prey" to the narrative of a select group of activists.
Mikhail told Hill that the filmmakers seemed to go soft on the military once it turned its guns away from liberal activists and directed them against the Muslim Brotherhood.
"They absolutely disengage completely when it came to the actual attack on the Brotherhood," she said of the August 2013 crackdown on a pro-Morsi protest camp, in which hundreds of civilians were killed. "It shows their bias, the fact that they were able to target the military so successfully and show their crimes so successfully up until it wasn't to their advantage, and then they stopped."
NPR's Robert Siegel, in a recent interview with Noujaim, also pushed back against her portrayal of Morsi's government as a continuation of Mubarak's regime and military rule. He pointed out that the film left out, for example, the fact that powerful judges left over from the Mubarak era seemed to actively undermine the Morsi government at nearly every turn. That didn't excuse Morsi's abuses, of course. But it was one of many indications that his government was, far from being the old regime's ally or puppet, for some time its primary target.
"The way that I make films is that I tell the story through the eyes of characters. And so if you follow the character's journey, there are obviously things that you are leaving out," Noujaim answered. "This isn't an interview film. We didn't go through and interview, you know, every leader across Egypt on what was happening. We decided to really take it from the perspective of these young revolutionaries."
Fair enough. And Noujaim is clear in interviews that, at least in the initial weeks of 2011 when she first arrived at the square, she herself was alongside the revolutionaries calling for change. So this isn't just their perspective; it's hers. There's nothing wrong with that in itself: Plenty of Oscar-winning documentaries have been made by activists or have expressed political views.
But the filmmakers have deployed this defense selectively. When asked about important events that are glossed over, they've dismissed them as "news and politics" better left to more journalistic accounts. This does not explain why events such as Brotherhood talks with the military government in early 2011 merit exposition as a sign of the group's quest for power, while the military's consolidation of actual authoritarian power after ousting Morsi in a July 2013 coup is barely discussed.
State violence against liberal activists is chronicled in appropriately gut-wrenching detail – we see footage of the horrific November 2011 clashes on Mohammed Mahmoud street on two separate occasions – but what was probably the country's deadliest crackdown of all, against Morsi supporters in August 2013, is portrayed more obliquely. Other than some short YouTube clips, we mostly experience it through the eyes of Ahmed Hassan, as we watch him call Ashour to offer consolation and support, the good liberal. The military coup that led to this slaughter is, just minutes earlier, greeted with celebration.
To be fair, the film has a difficult line to walk. It accurately documents and portrays the views of Egypt's secular/liberal protest movement, which is the filmmakers' clearly stated mission. But it doesn't just fail to fully explore or even acknowledge that movement's failings, in itself a serious shortcoming. It actively supports that movement's poisonous narrative of being the only real voice of the Egyptian people and its rejection of the country's other largest political movement as illegitimate.
In this way, "The Square," like its liberal revolutionary heroes, ends up affirming the atmosphere of polarization and exclusion that has so intensified since Morsi's ouster, undermining those original revolutionary ideals. We are briefly assured toward the film's end that its two foremost protagonists, Khalid Abdalla and Ahmed Hassan, want neither military nor Brotherhood rule and are working toward democracy, though it's not clear how. But the narrative presented in the film itself -- like many of the activists who now rally in support of the military government under groups such as Tamarod -- comes surprisingly close to dismissing the Brotherhood, in all its complexity and scope, as illegitimate.
It's little wonder that the film spends so little time on Egyptian security forces' August 2013 crackdown on the peaceful pro-Morsi protest camp at Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque, where hundreds of civilians were killed -- practically the only major protest event of the past three years that we do not see firsthand. That crackdown, often called the Rabaa massacre, contradicts the film's view of the liberal/secular protesters as the sole champions of freedom fighting against a Mubarak-military-Brotherhood continuum.
Uglier still, that crackdown was in some ways a direct product of the enthusiasm many protesters showed for the July 2013 military coup, which in the film is portrayed as a joyous event, and of their subsequent collusion with the military's efforts to exacerbate pre-existing resentment and fear of the Brotherhood. It's true that one of the activist protagonists expresses sympathy for a friend in the Brotherhood. But the film simply ignores the fact that the secular/liberal movement it set out to valorize has since in large measure embraced the military government and its demonization of Islamists as the enemies within.
It's jarring to see our protagonists so fiercely resist military rule in 2011, only to embrace it when it ousts Morsi two years later. Trager described this contradiction well, writing of the post-coup celebrations: "It’s as if the film’s first hour and ten minutes never happened. It’s as if the previous military regime hadn’t shot Ahmed in the head."
Egypt's present polarization and the military's government self-serving narrative casting the Brotherhood as a fascistic terrorist group are not just bad for the Brotherhood and the millions of Egyptians who have supported it. They are bad for all Egyptians. After the military coup that ousted Morsi, but even before the killings at Rabaa, Egypt scholar Michael Hanna of the Century Foundation told me of the country's deepening polarization, "Egypt might just be ungovernable."
That polarized atmosphere seems likely to serve only the military and the old order. When I wrote Hanna this week to ask if he shared my reactions to "The Square," he said that he hadn't yet seen it. "What I would say as a general matter," he wrote back, "is that the level of alienation of young revolutionaries and sense of betrayal by the MB is going to be a significant factor in Egyptian politics for decades. The idea of a reformist/Islamist alliance to unseat the old regime and remake its institutions is completely fanciful now. No opportunity or prospect for that to happen again."
Multiple Egypt-watchers I spoke to for this piece said they shared my impression that the film's one-sided narrative risks exacerbating the political polarization that so troubles Egypt today and that enables its military government. But none was willing to say as much on the record. They cited the degree to which the film had become a Western darling: Sympathy for liberal or secular activists is after all high in the West, while concern for the Muslim Brotherhood is low. They also worried about a ferocious blowback from Egyptians if they criticized the film's harsh portrayal of the Brotherhood, a view many Egyptians share. Even here in Washington, hundreds of anti-Morsi Egyptian protesters besieged The Washington Post's building in August, many of them citing The Post's decision to label Morsi's removal from power a coup.
Inside Egypt, meanwhile, both anti-state violence and government crackdowns, particularly on journalists and opposition activists, are increasing. Nationalism is exploding. Coup leader Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, who has cultivated a widely popular cult of personality, appears likely to run for president.
"The Square" is, in many ways, the perfect document of Egypt's revolutionaries and their path from 2011 to today. It captures wonderfully the hope, courage and idealism that so changed the country, and so inspired nearly everyone outside of it, in 2011. But it also unfortunately represents the later turn toward intolerance and polarization that has so undermined the revolutionary ideals that all too briefly made Egypt the object of the world's admiration.
Correction: This article originally quoted "The Square" producer Karim Amer as stating that no members of the Black Panthers had entered Congress. According to Amer, he had in fact asked rhetorically how many members entered Congress. His quote has been updated to reflect this.