Fundamental human rights. That well-worn sounds good to Western ears, but what does it mean?
That’s a question critically acclaimed documentary The Square consistently refuses to ask or answer. Filmed during Egypt’s “Arab Spring,” and released via Netflix, the documentary interweaves the lives of a handful of Egyptian protestors and Cairo’s Tahrir Square in a brief, personal sketch of the Egyptian revolution that excels at answering “who?” but refrains from asking “why?”
The Square focuses on young revolutionary Ahmed Hassan and his companions, including actor Khalid Abdalla and Muslim Brotherhood member Magdy Ashour. Despite their differences—Abdalla was born in Great Britain, while Hassan worked his way through fifth grade—Tahrir Square unifies their dissimilar backgrounds and views into a single dissatisfied voice calling for some kind of change. Together with thousands of other revolutionaries, they occupy Tahrir Square, chanting “bread, freedom, social justice,” until the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF, Egypt’s military leadership) forces President Hosni Mubarak from office.
But the initial jubilance at Mubarak’s removal sours as the revolution is co-opted by the Muslim Brotherhood, which sweeps Parliament and ultimately wins the Presidential elections, in which the only viable non-Brotherhood candidate represents the old Mubarak regime. The new president, Mohamed Morsi, marches to the tune of the Brotherhood’s vision for a fundamentalist Islamic regime. Viewers are treated to a sobering spectacle as the Brotherhood begins to marginalize those who desire a secular state, like Hassan and Abdalla. The secular revolutionaries push back, and amid a growing wave of public disapproval, the military deposes Morsi as well.
The Square depicts the military as a repressive force, ignoring the irony that at no point do the revolutionaries ever accomplish change on their own. They merely goad the military into appeasing them with a changing of the presidential guard that never threatens their own power. In the end, the only question that seems to matter is not who the protestors are, but who is part of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Armed Forces. They are the real agents of change in Egypt’s revolution.
But throughout the film, “why” is addressed only tangentially. As protestors flood Tahrir Square, we are told they “won’t leave until they get what they want,” but we aren’t told what that is. We quickly realize the Brotherhood is after power, trying to bring about what they believe is the best form of government—a religiously dominated one—but the other revolutionaries like Hassan have little to say besides chants of “bread, freedom, social justice.”
That is not to say that the Egyptian people have no legitimate grievances, or that the military are, in truth, the benign guardians of an unruly populace. But The Square does illustrate the problems with protesting against the regime, instead of for well-articulated goals. The regime changes, more than once, but the people never really seem satisfied. If the revolutionaries agreed on a set of objectives, they did not articulate them in The Square. But in the end, Hassan views Tahrir Square as a victory, not because Egyptians were granted human rights or because they deposed two different leaders, but because it instilled in Egyptians a culture of protest.
The Square tries to tell us that someday this culture of protest will lead to a more equal and just society. But instead, I walked away with the feeling that until the people of Egypt overcome their culture of protest and embrace a culture dedicated to thoughtful, thorough, deliberate change, they will never be more than a nation of protestors hemmed into a symbolic square by a few politicians and policemen. The message at the end of Hassan’s journey disappoints, but it should not be lost on this generation: Politics will prevail over principles.