It was after the military broke up one of the sit ins by driving through the crowd with armored vehicles. The Square caught footage of a man staring ahead, his skull split and face bent. At that point I started to suspect the old saying, “history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce” doesn’t apply to the events of Tahrir Square. This is tragedy begetting tragedy.
There’s certainly repetition. The protesters reach their limit with the establishment. They fill the square. Slogans, chants, and songs. The leader falls. The constituencies reassemble remaking the leadership out of the same composite parts and the dance starts again. All the while the initial demands of the revolution, ‘Bread, Freedom, Social Justice’, remain unfilled and no closer to fruition despite the continued tumult.
While the protesters have succeeded over every challenge thrown at them, this is not an action movie filled with impervious heroes. The casualties mount. Each new iteration of the establishment eventually falls back to violence, and more martyrs are drawn from the stock of protesters.
The Square starts in the haze of the protests against Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s dictator for three decades. Evidence of the regime’s crimes smolder from Facebook, Youtube and Twitter. Mubarak was a strongman dictator typical of the late twentieth century. Before the Arab Spring he was well supported by the Western powers. His means of power were the secret police. He put them to use to break up the protests in Tahrir, in footage that sadly doesn’t make it into this documentary, with cane wielding riders on camels and horses.
Young Ahmed answers an anonymous call, distributed from person to person, to meet up in Tahrir Square. To his surprise he is joined by thousands of his countrymen. He has found his mission in life.
Ahmed is our primary guide in this world. He begins beaming at the accomplishment of the movement, but the frequent skirmishes leave his face bloodied. By the end of the film signs of PTSD shadow his wearily optimistic talk.
Khalid Abdalla, a minor actor best known for appearing in the Kite Runner, throws in his lot with the protestors. Eloquent, with genuine movie star good looks, he becomes a popular interview for foreign press, and thus gains an outsized role in the proceedings. However as the chaos spirals he’s increasingly out of his depth and just as threatened as any other protestor.
Most interesting perhaps is Magdy, a long suffering member of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood are the only organized group outside of the Egyptian government and military, persecuted for decades as a terrorist group. They are organized and insular by necessity. The Brotherhood eye everything warily and embraced the Tahrir Square protests slowly and tentatively. In between sits Magdy, tugged by the caution of the Muslim Brotherhood and the plight of his fellow countrymen.
When the protests lead to a popular election, the decades of persecution ironically gave the Brotherhood all the tools they’d need to elect their candidate, Mohamed Morsi. Whatever euphoria this produced is quickly pierced by the realization that Morsi is just as bad as Mubarek.
Making a brief appearance to announce Morisi’s disposal is General Al Sisi who since the release of The Square ascended to the presidency and since severely curtailed civil freedoms. He’d be wise to watch The Square and absorb its message. The people’s demands are not so off base.
At the margins, even the protesters understand how deep a hole modern Egypt will have to escape to achieve any of their stated goals. Their protests topple leaders but don’t produce them. Even that aside, a good leader can’t do much in a corrupt system. A president cannot will a judiciary into fairness. A constitution is meaningless if no one abides by it. Political reform won’t turn land arable or reverse global warming.