If you’re like me, you followed Egypt’s revolution out of the corner of your eye, through the lens of Western media coverage. You saw President Hosni Mubarak step down in January 2011 and watched the Egyptian people elect and, a year later, remove Mohammed Morsi from office. “The Square,” a remarkable new documentary by director Jehane Noujaim, is an essential complement to this long-distance, top-down understanding of Egypt’s recent history, telling the story of political change through the eyes of grassroots activists. It is a film that needs to be seen and shared.
“The Square” traces the experiences of a handful of demonstrators, from their protest tent idealism and kitchen table political debates to their violent encounters with the armed forces. We get to know Ahmed, who grew up selling lemons to pay for his schooling and is today a leader among protesters, a charismatic orator and an openhearted listener. Magdy, one of Ahmed’s allies and friends, is a father of five and longtime member of the Muslim Brotherhood, who is repeatedly prompted to reevaluate his loyalties. Khalid Abdalla, an Egyptian actor and star of “The Kite Runner,” is also featured in the film: He has moved to Egypt to spend time in Tahrir Square, advocating complete and long-term political reform by day and Skype-ing his father, an Egyptian civil dissident in exile, by night.
While these characters have diverse histories, what they share is perseverance: They choose time and again to risk their lives for freedom and democracy. Their suffering is made particularly palpable when Ramy Essam, a singer-songwriter for the revolution, endures a brutal beating by the military. Sprawled out on a bed, he bares his scars to the camera<\p><\_><\p>and we observe, up close, the resilience of the Egyptian people.
But this documentary is not just a call for empathy. It’s a sophisticated evaluation of the revolution’s outcomes. It exposes slippage between idealism and naivety, as well as the pitfalls of a “leaderless” political movement. Indeed, in reflecting on the revolution’s accomplishments, Noujaim interviews activists who acknowledge that their organization was thwarted by factionalism. Egypt’s economic and political fate is far from resolved today.
That said, Ahmed and his friends see a change in popular consciousness as the revolution’s primary achievement. As Ahmed says, “I think what’s happening is more powerful than any individual or any organization. It’s something fundamental inside people that is moving them. I don’t know how you kill that.”
“The Square” promises to help keep Ahmed’s dreams alive. The documentary is itself a product of unflinching bravery, which does justice to the everyday risks its characters continue to bear. The camera team was unafraid to ask difficult questions, to shoot from the eye of the storm, in the midst of the conflagration between demonstrators and armed forces. In this sense, Noujaim, her colleagues and her characters are all revolutionaries, capturing and elaborating the ideals that exploded in Tahrir Square three years ago.