Review: The Square – bravery, determination and disappointment in Egypt

About The Author

David Johnson, CWI England and Wales, reviews the film The Square (el Midan, subtitled in English).

Cairo’s Tahrir Square has gripped world headlines since 2011. Twice it was occupied by mass uprisings that brought down a president – Hosni Mubarak after 30 years of brutal dictatorship, and Mohammed Morsi after just 12 months of increasingly dictatorial powers.

The Square is a vivid documentary film starting with January 2011’s uprising against Mubarak and ending shortly after Morsi’s downfall in July 2013.

The ebbs and flows of the Egyptian revolution are seen through the eyes of participants, particularly Ahmed Hassan – a young activist, Magdy Ashour- a Muslim Brotherhood (MB) member tortured under Mubarak, and Khalid Abdalla – the British-born actor from an Egyptian family, best known for his role in ‘The Kite Runner’.

In February 2011 the massive crowds are seen fraternising with soldiers. Muslims and Christians mix happily together.

Young women confidently shout slogans. All are united against the regime. “Bread, freedom and social justice” are the demands on the lips of millions.

Mubarak out!

As an army officer announces Mubarak’s resignation on TV, tears are shed and crowds dance. “This is when we realised the people are the true power,” says Ahmad. “Good things are coming.”

The euphoria lasts weeks. The film shows lively discussions among the crowds, debating how society should move forward.

But the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces had taken control of the government, the crowds were persuaded to go home and little seemed to change.

Where next?

Activists returned to the square to try to regain the position they felt they held months earlier. They were viciously attacked by security forces.

The bruised and beaten body of singer Ramy Essam, whose songs had become the soundtrack for the uprising, is shown.

Sensing their loss of power, one activist says: “It’s like we did really well in an exam and forgot to write our name on the paper. Now no one knows who it belonged to.”

Magdy, the MB member, is seen taking part in occupying Tahrir from the start of the uprising against Mubarak, despite the MB leadership’s instruction not to take part. “I’m not happy with the Brotherhood leaders,” he says.

Khalid argues with his mother, an activist from an older generation, about the forthcoming elections.

He forcefully makes the point that only the Muslim Brotherhood are well-organised for the elections, but his only alternative is to call for their postponement. “All the politicians are failures.”

The October 2011 army massacre of peaceful Christian protesters outside the Maspero broadcasting centre is graphically shown. By December, the army are firing live bullets at the crowds around Tahrir.

The film’s brave camera-work brings the viewer to the frontline alongside Ahmed, including the makeshift pavement hospital he is rushed to when injured.

He appears stunned by the rapid change of events in under a year. “Revolutionaries are called traitors, while the traitors are called heroes.” But he takes up the struggle once again.

When the presidential election is held in May 2012, the choice is between the MB’s Morsi and the old regime’s Shafiq.

Nevertheless, there is rejoicing when Shafiq is defeated, albeit by a narrow 3% margin.

Khalid draws the conclusion: “Most of the time we object and say ‘no’, but we have no alternative of our own.” Magdy’s teenage daughter says: “Nothing was gained from the revolution. We still can’t get healthcare.”

At the end of the film, the MB is under attack as Morsi is ousted following the largest demonstration in history. But General al-Sisi takes over – the senior military officers are still in charge.

The Square shows the revolutionary youth’s bravery, determination and energy, and how many ordinary MB members like Magdy were influenced by their mood and fought alongside them for dignity and social justice. But it doesn’t answer the question – why is Mubarak’s repressive regime being reconstructed three years later?

Role of the working class

Absent from the film are the millions of workers who played a crucial role in Mubarak’s downfall and who organised into trade unions to fight for higher wages and better conditions.

Their absence reflects the lack of an organised workers’ presence in Tahrir, where workers participated as individuals rather than as a class able to give a lead to the unorganised poor and middle class sections of society.

The 2011 Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions sparked mass occupations of youth across Europe and the USA – the Indignados and Occupy movements.

This film shows both the possibilities and weaknesses of those movements that mobilised so many to fight for change.

But no clear idea of what that change should be or how it could be won was put forward which left the ruling class able to keep power – hanging on by a thread in Tunisia and Egypt.

Building a party that could do this is the key task for all who are determined to change society. A strategy for a workers’ government and a democratic socialist society, with an international appeal for support, could lead to victory for workers and poor people in Egypt and elsewhere.

The Square has had few screenings in Britain, despite winning awards at 20I3 film festivals and a 2014 Oscar nomination. Socialist Party branches should organise screenings and discuss it