[Marxism] "The Square" generates controversy

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Feb 8 10:57:19 MST 2014

(This film can be seen on Netflix. I highly recommend it, even if you 
like the people quoted in this article find some of the conclusions 

NY Times, Feb. 8 2014
Once Upon a Revolution: A Story With No End
Egyptian-American Filmmaker Captures Cairo’s Arab Spring


CAIRO — The discussion started decorously enough. The novelist Alaa 
al-Aswany had screened “The Square,” the Oscar-nominated documentary 
about the Egyptian revolution, at his monthly salon two weeks ago, and 
he opened by lamenting that the film focused on just a handful of 
articulate characters instead of the masses of “simple people.” And as 
in almost every conversation here about the “The Square,” it did not 
take long before the fighting began.

The debate turned to shouting, spilled into the hallway outside, and 
finally drowned out any further discussion: Did the generals protect the 
revolution, or had they always meant to crush it? Did the Islamists 
betray the “revolutionaries,” or did the young liberals abandon the 
Islamists in the face of the army’s tanks? Were the rebels doomed by 
their own naïveté?

“This film wants to break us down!” a woman declared. Maha El Badry, a 
popular singer, agreed as she walked out the door: “It was created to 
depress us.”

However stirring the images of Arab Spring idealism might seem to 
Western audiences, “The Square” is often painful viewing for those who 
lived through it, a heartbreaking reminder of hopes deferred and fears 
fulfilled. The film, made by the Egyptian-American director Jehane 
Noujaim and shot before she knew how the story would end, chronicles a 
handful of young rebels struggling to save their revolution from larger 
and more cynical forces: the military and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Seemingly everyone here who has seen “The Square” has some complaint 
about omissions or distortions. The current military-backed government, 
possibly displeased with the depiction of the army, has not yet allowed 
it to be distributed in Egypt. And the acrimony of the disputes among 
those who have seen it — on the Internet or in private screenings — 
tells its own story about the collapse of the rapturous unity in Tahrir 
Square three years ago.

Khalid Abdalla, an actor (“The Kite Runner”) and activist who is a 
central figure in the film, argued in an interview last week at an 
upscale cafe that part of the documentary’s value was memorializing that 
“moment of extraordinary solidarity” at a time when many Egyptians are 
losing faith in its possibility.

“The connection is there if you want to make it, and that, I feel, is 
the film’s real gift.” But as Egypt enters another “dark period,” he 
acknowledged, “there are moments in the film that smart, that hurt” — as 
when he or his friends worry aloud about the possibility of a military 
“coup,” or declare with confidence that the generals will never again to 
try to run Egypt the way they once had.

For revolutionaries like Mr. Abdalla and the film’s other subjects, the 
uprising’s third anniversary last month was almost surreal. In the same 
square where crowds once celebrated the end of autocracy, thousands 
gathered to cheer for the general who had removed Egypt’s first 
fairly-elected president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. At 
least 62 protesters were killed in clashes with riot police at 
demonstrations against the military takeover. Some of the most prominent 
activists in the 2011 revolt were behind bars. The government was 
cracking down on dissenting journalists and intellectuals.

And Islamist insurgents marked the anniversary by shooting down an army 
helicopter. Egypt once again felt stuck between military autocracy and 
militant Islam.

Many civilian supporters of the military takeover accuse “The Square” of 
undermining national security by portraying the army in an unflattering 
light when it is in a life or death struggle against “terrorism.” Since 
the military ouster of Mr. Morsi, the new government and its allies in 
the news media have used the term “terrorists” to describe his civilian 
supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood as well as the Islamist militants 
behind the bombings and assassinations.

In scenes of the escalating street protests during the months of 
military rule that followed the removal of President Hosni Mubarak, the 
film shows soldiers driving tanks over Coptic Christian demonstrators, 
kicking and pulling off the clothes of a woman in a traditional head 
scarf and abaya, and dragging the motionless body of a wounded 
demonstrator across pavement to a garbage heap. Later, an army officer 
smugly asserts that the military orchestrated the whole revolution. (A 
popular conspiracy theory holds that the generals manipulated the 
uprising to stop Mr. Mubarak from passing the job to his son Gamal, a 

The filmmakers say that they hope to receive permission to release the 
film in Egypt. But the authorized distribution or broadcast of such 
images of the military would be hard to imagine here.

Some have denounced the film as an American plot. Khaled Montaser, a 
columnist in the pro-military newspaper El Watan, accused the film of 
“celebrating, repeating and exaggerating scenes of the military’s 
violence” to fit “the inclination of the Americans” in the hope of 
winning an Oscar. A like-minded blogger called it “pure conspiratorial 
art” directed by a propaganda arm of the United States Army.

The Islamists have accused the directors of building much of the film 
around a liberal conspiracy theory of perfidy by the Muslim Brotherhood: 
that the group had cut a secret deal with the generals to ease its own 
ascent to power through swift elections, before liberals could catch up 
in organizing.

Only one Islamist speaks in the film, Magdy Ashour, and he is an 
idiosyncratic outlier who never articulates the contrary views held by 
most Brotherhood members — that the organization was pursuing a more 
feasible and less confrontational path to civilian democracy. Instead, 
Mr. Ashour joins his liberal friends in their increasingly strident 
criticism of the group and its leaders.

Then, Islamists say, the documentary more or less ends at last summer’s 
military takeover, without acknowledging that it dispelled any notion of 
an enduring alliance between the Islamists and the generals. The film 
only briefly addresses the ensuing crackdown on the Brotherhood that 
killed more than 1,000 of its supporters (more than the number of 
protesters killed during the original revolt).

At festivals last year, the filmmakers were showing an early version as 
a work in progress but they rushed back to Egypt to continue work as 
street protests against President Morsi began heating up. The final 
version now ends with euphoria at the massive demonstrations that 
preceded the military takeover, followed by a liberal activist’s 
agonized recognition that the ensuing takeover threatens the life of his 
Islamist friend Mr. Ashour.

Even non-Islamist, left-leaning activists whose story is the core of the 
film complain it skips over or blurs together bloody clashes with the 
police that they will remember forever. Some also damn the film for 
failing to blame the Muslim Brotherhood enough for abuses by the police 
or Islamists while Mr. Morsi was in office.

“It is missing many things and I did not like it,” Malek Adly, a human 
rights advocate, griped on Twitter.

But in an interview on Thursday, Ms. Noujaim said she had tried to tell 
the human stories of specific individuals caught up in the revolt, not 
to provide a journalistic account of the view from all sides. “This film 
is sort of a love letter to those ideas that were put forth at the start 
of the revolution,” she said. “Some may say that what is happening now 
is a tragedy, but it is still an open-ended story, and that is an 
important thing to remember.”

Some, especially the young, have applauded the film just for recalling 
the feelings of shared hope and common cause that once bound Islamists, 
liberals and working people together in the square. In social media, 
many young Egyptians have said they plan to show the film to their 
parents. They want to convince their elders that the revolution was more 
than a mirage and that it is not yet over.

“I want to show my father ‘The Square,’ “ Mahmoud Salah, a pharmacist, 
wrote on Twitter. “Maybe then he will change his opinion about politics 
in Egypt.”

Marwa Nasser contributed reporting.

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