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The Egypt outside ‘The Square’

Jehane Noujaim’s Oscar-nominated documentary revels in an idealistic portrait of the 2011 Egyptian uprising, but its sympathies for secular activists eclipse a more complicated truth.

Egypt in Turmoil

Until the 1800s, the land between the Nile River and Cairo's oldest settlement, a place called Al-Fustat, was a forgotten marsh.

Only during the final decades of the 19th century did Egypt's Ottoman khedives, its local viceroys, drain the swamp and begin to expand their capital in an obsessively European style.

Full of neatly radiating boulevards and named Ismailia in honor of the ruling khedive, a new quarter grew along the east bank of the river. A bridge, later named Qasr al-Nile, or Nile Palace, allowed tourists to cross between the burgeoning district and the pyramids to the west.

At the bridge's eastern end, where it met the outskirts of Cairo proper, Khedive Ismail donated a piece of his palace gardens to build a large roundabout named Midan al-Ismailia, or Ismailia Square.

When the British military arrived in 1882 to help put down a revolt against Ismail's son, soldiers commandeered a barracks in the square. It was there in 1946, as British influence in Egypt waned, that troops brutally suppressed a massive anti-British protest.

"When the demonstrators reached Ismailiya Square … four British army vehicles moved towards them and a barrage of machine-gun fire opened up," historian and activist Ahmed Abdalla wrote in 1985. Twenty-three people were killed and 120 injured. "The government disclaimed all responsibility and blamed students for allowing their 'peaceful demonstration' to degenerate into violence 'because of infiltration by a mob.'"

In early 1953, shortly after a cadre of Egyptian military officers overthrew the remnants of the old colonial order and set Egypt on a path to decades of autocracy, they renamed the roundabout Midan al-Tahrir: Liberation Square. Even then, the former marsh's mythology had begun to grow.

Hassan, the protagonist of “The Square,” is an idealistic and sometimes naive protester.
Noujaim Films

"We are now living in the state of Tahrir," jokes Ahmed Hassan, a mirthful 20-something protester, nearly six decades later.

Hassan is the buoyant main protagonist of Jehane Noujaim's new documentary about Egypt's 2011 uprising, "The Square," which was nominated for an Academy Award on Thursday — the country's first.

In many ways, Hassan is emblematic of the young Egyptians who occupied Tahrir Square between Jan. 25 and Feb. 11 of that year, when protesters — aided by the army — brought down President Hosni Mubarak, their ruler for 29 years.

Hassan's mother is an illiterate vegetable vendor from a poor part of Cairo's Shubra neighborhood. As the film begins, he recalls how he sold lemons on the street as a child to pay for school. Like many who came of age during the crony capitalism of Mubarak's Egypt, he arrives in Tahrir after holding a series of odd jobs, having worked as a cook and a house cleaner despite his associate's degree in journalism.

Reporters who covered the uprising met hundreds of young men like Hassan. But he especially seems to embody the moment. Witty and puckish, he's a baby-faced revolutionary philosopher, by turns reflective and pugnacious. He is euphoric when protests are at their height and despondent when they seem to fail, chanting and orating to the crowds until his voice goes hoarse. Like many who occupied the square, he is also idealistic to the point of naivete, infuriated by anyone's efforts to turn the revolution into political gain.

When the Muslim Brotherhood — a conservative 86-year-old charitable and proselytizing movement and the country's best-organized political force — begins negotiating with the military, which assumed power after Mubarak's fall, Hassan and his friends are outraged by what they see as cynical maneuvering conducted while their comrades are still dying in the streets.

Later, with the Brotherhood decimated and the military ascendant again — and after a majority of the film has detailed how soldiers abused protesters and disdained their democratic ambitions — he earnestly wonders if "the army will act in the same way it did."

The answer, we know, is yes. Last July, the military deposed Mohamed Morsi, the country's first freely elected president and a Brotherhood member. In August, security forces killed more than 1,000 people who gathered in two main Cairo squares to protest his removal — the worst such violence in Egypt's modern history.

The Brotherhood has been effectively banished from public life, and even some of the uprising's best-known secular figures — such as Alaa Abdel Fattah, who appears for a split second in the film — have been charged with crimes or thrown into prison in a wave of repression that human rights groups have called worse than any crackdown under Mubarak.

"The Square," at 95 minutes long, does not make much time for this competing narrative. Though Noujaim re-edited the film in 2013, after its festival debut, to account for the coup against Morsi, she addresses the killing of his supporters only in a few brief YouTube clips, followed by a title card stating that "hundreds" died. The film concludes with Hassan, who expresses hope that the uprising has birthed "a society of consciousness" that no government can again repress. It gives little indication that matters are about to get worse.

By aligning itself with Hassan and his fellow secular activists, "The Square" — which is fast becoming one of the most influential accounts of the uprising outside of Egypt — takes on much of their idealistic and naive attitude, at the expense, some would argue, of the truth.

Noujaim Films

Noujaim grew up in Cairo's upper-class Zamalek neighborhood and had begun documenting Egypt's crusading human rights advocates years before the uprising, directing a film about activists called "Egypt, We Are Watching You" in 2007. Three years earlier, she made "Control Room," a well-received documentary about the Iraq War and Al Jazeera.

As Jan. 25, 2011, approached, and Noujaim began to hear rumblings that an unprecedented protest was being planned, she plotted a new project. Few predicted that demonstrations would escalate, and Noujaim knew they would be well covered by news media, so she decided to travel to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where she hoped to document how heavyweight Egyptian attendees, including Mubarak's son and rumored successor Gamal, reacted to events.

But when protesters occupied Tahrir, Noujaim found herself scrambling for a flight back to Cairo, and she returned on Feb. 3.

Noujaim met her first characters through her friend Pierre Sioufi, a self-described “salon revolutionary.”
Noujaim Films

Noujaim's film equipment was confiscated at the airport, and she was briefly held at a checkpoint on her way into the city, but she retained a hand-held DSLR camera that she had purchased during a layover in London, having been correctly warned by friends that her other equipment would be taken.

She soon headed to meet Pierre Sioufi, a friend and well-off, self-described "salon revolutionary" who owned a top-floor apartment directly overlooking Tahrir Square. 

Sioufi would become a nexus between foreign journalists and a predominantly English-speaking, secular group of Egyptian activists. The New York Times called him the "guru of the revolution" and his apartment the "Facebook flat." 

Aida el-Kashef, a filmmaker and actress who frequently visited the apartment, introduced Noujaim to Khalid Abdalla, the British-born son of a dissident Egyptian expatriate family and an actor who had played prominent roles in "United 93" and "The Kite Runner." Abdalla had arrived in Cairo from London on Jan. 28, and he served as an eloquent interview subject for foreign media outlets during the uprising. He would become Noujaim's second main character.

Through the buoyant Hassan, Noujaim stumbled upon the film's third and final protagonist, an affable Brotherhood member named Magdy Ashour, who was encamped next to Hassan's tent in Tahrir.

Throughout the film, all three men, who came to befriend one another over the following years, open up their lives to Noujaim's cameras, even as Ashour begins to drift away from Hassan and Abdalla. Noujaim's sympathies lie more with her secular characters, and both Abdalla and Hassan receive more camera time, but Ashour is portrayed warmly and empathetically.

The film distinguishes between Ashour, who often disagrees with more conservative Brotherhood edicts, and the broader movement, which is portrayed through Hassan and Abdalla's eyes as cynical and manipulative. We learn of the complex religious and economic reasons that Ashour remains loyal; he was jailed and tortured under Mubarak, taken from his home in front of his children in the middle of the night, and it was the Brotherhood that supported his family.

But though Noujaim's protagonists come from diverse backgrounds, it is the ethos of Sioufi's flat — the innocent and self-righteous passion of young, mostly secular and often well-educated activists who saw themselves in a lonely battle with protest as their only weapon — that pervades "The Square." Their worldview goes unchallenged, even when those activists support a military coup to overthrow the Brotherhood, putting their friend Ashour in mortal danger.

Some of the same young Egyptians who protested alongside Noujaim's activists now criticize what they see as the film's rose-tinted bias and oversimplification of an ongoing revolutionary moment that is far from pure or straightforward.

Amira Mikhail, who volunteered with human rights groups after the uprising and now studies law at American University in Washington, D.C., said the film "fell prey" to the narrative of a select group of activists.

"'The Square' is really good at showing my story. I cried the whole film because of how real it was," she said. "My problem isn't really with who they focused on. It's the fact that they were able to make it through a fairly long documentary and they only chose to highlight the sexy story of the revolution."

Mikhail, a Christian, said the film did not do enough to highlight sectarian violence or the rapes and sexual assaults routinely perpetrated against women in the square after the uprising.

Nor did the movie give adequate weight to the unprecedented crackdown against the Brotherhood, she said.

"They absolutely disengage completely when it came to the actual attack on the Brotherhood," she said. "It shows their bias, the fact that they were able to target the military so successfully and show their crimes so successfully up until it wasn't to their advantage, and then they stopped."

Mikhail said she saw her friends reflected in characters like Hassan, and in the film's editorial choices, an extension of their flawed preoccupation with their own tight-knit world of protest.

"My goodness, the amount of time that we spent arguing with people, the amount of time that we spent almost masochistically hurting ourselves protesting when we knew there was no way out," she said. "And (the film) is exactly what Egypt is like these days ... We're not going to deal with it."

Noujaim disputed the notion that "The Square" had failed by not widening its lens to other troubling aspects of the uprising, or shifting its focus to the crackdown on the Brotherhood.

The filmmakers had to edit down from more than 1,500 hours of footage, she said, and the "news and the politics" of the revolution were best left to journalists.

The film's tight focus on activists like Hassan was born of necessity that Noujaim learned as a director: Involve more than a few main characters, she said, and audiences will struggle to make an emotional connection with any of them.               

"What we hoped to do and what (cinema) verite film can do is try to give people a glimpse of what it felt like to actually be there in the square," she told Al Jazeera. "It's not really taking a side … You're trying to be as truthful as you can be to the experience and emotional journey of your characters. So if Ahmed is going through something, you're trying to represent that as best you can."

The camera crew spent many hours filming the main pro-Morsi protest, in Rabaa el-Adawiya Square, Noujaim said, and she hopes to make additional footage of that sit-in available online.

But ultimately, she said, her goal was to provide "a voice and a platform" to the activists: "Khalid also says this beautifully, that people often say that the struggle is between the military on one side and the Brotherhood on the other side, but really what the struggle should be is between these organized fascist movements on one side, the Brotherhood and the military, versus these disorganized social movements on the other side."

Besides "The Square," the only major film that has attempted to discuss the 2011 uprising is "Rags and Tatters," a fictionalized account of the 18 days that led to Mubarak's fall by popular director Ahmad Abdalla, which debuted in Canada in September.

Abdalla's two prior movies, "Heliopolis" and "Microphone," dealt with the nostalgia, decay and stifled hope of what would be the final years of Mubarak's rule. In "Rags and Tatters," he presents a darker vision of what the revolution has unleashed.

"'The Square' ends up closing on too high a note … whereas 'Rags and Tatters' seems almost nihilistic in the way that it goes forward," said Sherief Gaber, an Egyptian researcher on urban development and member of the nonpartisan Mosireen filmmaking collective.

The film begins abruptly in the middle of a chaotic prison break, one of several that panicked the nation during the initial days of the uprising. Actor Asser Yassin plays a prisoner whose name we never learn and flees the prison at night, under gunfire. For the next 87 minutes, the camera quietly follows him through an eerie, twilight world of neighborhood vigilantes, military checkpoints and sporadic acts of heroism and violence.

The effect is to present a portrait of the uprising that is almost the reverse of "The Square."

Like the majority of Egyptians, Yassin's character never comes near Tahrir Square. He watches an activist film a woman's account of police violence outside a hospital gate but loses interest when he spots a girl from his past. Though the audience can see that he lives in Cairo — the film was shot in a district of predominantly Christian garbage pickers on the capital's eastern edge — he glimpses the uprising and its growing historic proportions only through fleeting television broadcasts from Al Jazeera and state media.

Abdalla's film asks its viewers to consider the hundreds of thousands of unnamed Egyptians whose lives were changed, and in some cases irrevocably shattered, by the revolution — including those, like the main character, who didn't participate in it. It touches on sectarian violence, and its conclusion is provocative in its despair.

For many young Egyptians who participated in the uprising, that feeling of hopelessness has become familiar.

"It's no secret that we were really naive in kind of assuming that the revolution had succeeded as soon as the ouster of Mubarak was announced," said Mohamad Fahmy, one of Egypt's best-known revolutionary street artists, who goes by the pseudonym Ganzeer. "I think of it as a war, and maybe we won a battle, which was a battle against Mubarak, right, but then we lost the whole war … At the end it was about the regime and accomplishing certain changes with the way the country was governed, and in that sense we lost."

The lesson of the past three years, Fahmy said, is that only the military — or another armed force — can pick winners and losers in Egypt. "Asking the state to change nicely," he said, has failed. Though he found much to dislike in Morsi's administration, he said he would have preferred that it be removed by civil means.

Since the coup, Fahmy has continued making art in opposition to the military. But he abandoned the graffiti for which he was best known, a series of large-scale red, yellow and orange murals depicting portraits of slain protesters, when the deaths kept coming and it became evident that the turmoil would not end.

He described the 2011 revolt, like the physical space of Tahrir Square itself, as a story whose horizons extend far beyond 18 days, encompassing the military’s 1952 revolution and possible confrontations yet to occur.

"Either it means there's another war coming ... (or) this itself was the continuation of a previous war, because I think a lot of people in the '50s felt they got f---ed as well," he said. "So perhaps this fight … is a continuation of their fight."