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The Narrative of the Egyptian revolution (2011-2013) in the documentary 'Al Midan' (The Square)

category north africa | miscellaneous | opinion / analysis author Saturday December 13, 2014 04:30author by Sweatshirt Report this post to the editors

This essay seeks to address the subject of the Egyptian revolution by following the narrative of the revolution in the 2013 documentary Al Midan (The Square) by Jehane Noujaim. [footnote: Jehane Noujaim. 2013. Al-Midan (The Square). [] The question under investigation here is: How is the revolution – its dynamics and its capacity – narrated in this piece of documentary film? Basically, I want to know, how the director and its narrators give meaning to this recent part of Egyptian history.

The Narrative of the Egyptian revolution (2011-2013) in the documentary 'Al Midan' (The Square)


When the Arab Spring unfolded in early 2011, many were taken by surprise. The Western media was in support of social change and revolution in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and elsewhere. After protest movements successfully overthrew several regimes, people all around the world were amazed and at high hopes. Many believed that spring would be followed by an endless summer, i. e. that democracy would finally come and justice prevail. The conservative narrative of the post 9/11 world saw no alternative next to so called terrorists or dictators in the Middle East. Thus, authoritarian rulers were the lesser evil and had to be supported against Islamism. The Arab Spring did break that idea. But that wasn't the end of the story. A complex political process evolved, that gives room for different readings and interpretations of what the Egyptian revolution is all about. It can be said that the revolution ended with the massacre on Rabah Square on the 14th of August 2013. The leader of the military coup and the subsequent president Sisi were not only able to end the practice of mass protest which was unleashed on 25 January 2011. This counter-revolution suppressed not only any open dissent, but did so with the support of a large share of the population. The paradox is that at the end of the revolution, things are even worse than they were before. How come?

This essay seeks to address the subject of the Egyptian revolution by following the narrative of the revolution in the 2013 documentary Al Midan (The Square) by Jehane Noujaim.[1] The question under investigation here is: How is the revolution – its dynamics and its capacity – narrated in this piece of documentary film? Basically, I want to know, how the director and its narrators give meaning to this recent part of Egyptian history. By doing this I look how capacity and dynamics become relevant in the narration. Methodically, I conduct a simple content analysis and focus on what is said. I leave aside the images and formal qualities of the narration.

Number Strength

The film divides the dynamics of the process into three stages, because large crowds came out three times to force a regime from state power. The widely reported overthrow of Mubarak in February 2011 was the first stage. Secondly, the military government of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) – to whom Mubarak handed power when stepping down – was ousted after tough street fighting in winter 2011/2012. Formally, SCAF handed over power to elected president Morsi at the end of June 2012. In a third wave of mass demonstrations Morsi was driven out of power in early July 2013. The army took over again in a coup. Three times people came out and three times they had taken down the ruler. In the eyes of the film's narrators, revolution would have become a permanent tool of political bargaining in the hands of the people vis-à-vis any kind of government. They thought that they could go on forever "pulling rulers out of power". Revolution would be a permanent "culture of a people". People would already “own their freedom” and would be capable of defying another military government:[2]

"What is revolution? Revolution is not simply replacing a regime. Revolution is a culture of a people. You give them ownership of their freedom. That's what we gained. We were able to introduce the culture of protesting. Now they can oppose the ruler, whoever they are. If we predict what's next, the army is coming. The army will return, let's not fool each other. But do you think the army will act in the same way it did? Do you think so? Now the power is in the hands of the people. Whoever comes next, the people will continue to pull rulers out of power until people reclaim their rights and we build the country ourselves. Isn't that right?"[3]

Those powerful words are told in the midst of the crowd, which is occupying downtown Cairo. The film ends with this notion of pure street power. It is the final message of the film. On the square people would become a united crowd, bound in solidarity – equal and conscious – against the rulers, the police, the army, and the traitors of the Muslim Brotherhood.[4] The sheer number of people, the resilience in street battle and the fact of true political success – contrary to Libya and Syria – gives that specific idea of revolution its very truth. In this idea of unity and street power – in the beginning and in the end – repression is constantly defied, so to say: "The more they kill, the more we believe in our cause".[5]

Contrary to this euphoria there was repression each time, inflicting panic and fear, turning the square into a warzone, mutilating the minds and bodies of "revolutionaries" until they felt that it was "too much".[6] The violence of the state culminated with the massacre on Rabah Square on 14th of August 2013, when the new military regime under General Sisi killed "likely more than 1,000" Muslim Brotherhood protesters.[7] The film doesn't really tell us about Rabah Square. It does end with the assembled crowd on Tahrir Square. But revolution and massacre are closely linked. Throughout the film this twisted connection becomes clear, but falls short at the end.

The army took power by the means of a coup d' état on the height of the protests against the government of the Muslim Brotherhood under president Morsi. The military presented itself as an ally and saviour to the crowd on Tahrir Square. A new unity emerged: that of a people following an authoritarian statesman. The Muslim Brotherhood had already done the same with its own followers. Thus, this third revolution – large gathering of crowds – saw the emergence of two crowds, each following a leader. The Egyptian security forces massacred this enemy-crowd of the Muslim Brotherhood with widespread support of the other crowd on Tahrir. Politically, the effect was the neutralization of the revolution altogether and the reintroduction of authoritarian rule.[8]

While in the beginning there had been just two players on the scene, the Muslim Brotherhood emerged as a force of its own during the second revolution in the fight against the SCAF. The narrators accuse the Muslim Brotherhood leaders – not all its members altogether – of hijacking the revolution, of collaborating with the army, of using the revolution to get state power. Therefore, the Muslim Brotherhood is seen as a traitor of the revolution.[9] The rule of the SCAF was replaced by the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood under president Morsi. Anger was arising anew as Morsi fulfilled the fears of his liberal and left-wing critics and came up with a new Islamist constitution. On top of that he gave himself unchecked powers. The narrators in the film accuse Morsi of abusing democracy.[10] That he “promised to achieve the revolution's demands” in the first place made this political twist even worse.[11] This anger against the Muslim Brotherhood made it possible for General Sisi to stage a coup and become the new strongman.

Organisational Weakness

The massacre on Rabah Square terminated the revolutionary process and confirmed those who were critical in their assessment of the true strength of power of the revolution. The narrators tell us about the organisational weakness of the movement. They evaluated the capacity of the revolution differently in different moments. During the times of the assembled crowd prospects were flying high, while at times of repression bullets and electroshocks heavily damaged the fighting spirit. Therefore, we see two contradictory effects of political truth. First, there was the truth of the revolutionary square. Second, there was the truth of political experience of the past. In this second view the turmoil of the revolution can easily be manipulated by the elites, because social unrest is the justification of renewed authoritarianism. The mother of a prominent organiser of the Egyptian revolution tells her son: "I am so fucking scared of the moment a lieutenant or a brigadier general or something will say 'enough of this rubbish, we are back to military rule completely'. It is in their interest that it disintegrates into chaos. It is in their interest to say: 'You people, enough! Law and order!'"[12]

Here the film reflects the manipulative strategy of the ruling elites. They were finally successful. Fear of chaos translated at once into support of authoritarianism. The pathway of the revolution against the government could be streamlined by the very same government. If done so successfully the revolution would bolster – and not subvert – authoritarian rule. It is said in the beginning of the film, that "the regime always worked against the people", which means that "they would torture, electrocute, beat shit out of people".[13] Hence, a revolution was a just cause. But those who came out to successfully contest the Mubarak regime wouldn't have imagined such a political trajectory before "the entire nation erupted at once".[14] And after done so, they couldn't subsequently imagine that the tide could turn back: "After ten months, everything was against us. The Military Council was against us. The Brotherhood sold us out. The media made people hate us [...] I never imagined this could happen".[15]

Those weak moments are simply followed by new protests. That was the rhythm of the revolution and how it is narrated. Going out in large numbers to the street was political power. But number strength was not enough to win the game. Neither was the unity of the Tahrir crowds strong enough to avert political instrumentalisation, nor to defend protesters from being attacked, detained and tortured. This lack of organisation is clearly articulated by the narrators.[16] Even though they went far, they didn't go far enough. At the end they couldn't say that they had truly succeeded. The problem was not the lack of consciousness about the political goals that were to be fought for. The objects were clear and had the support throughout the movement. They were conscious about the political necessity of going very far. They said that it wasn't just about Mubarak. It was "about all the country's institutions and that they [had] to change".[17] Only when practising revolution in its more profound social meaning, they would be able to truly build a new society.

The problem was elsewhere. As the narrators of the film tell us, the revolutionary movement did not build sufficient organisational capacity to avert instrumentalisation and uphold defence and protection. In summer 2013 – after the coup, before the massacre and when crowds were as large as never before – one of the narrators reflected: "We thought the revolution succeeded. Not really. It's not even close".[18]

by Sweatshirt, 14 November 2014

[1]Jehane Noujaim. 2013. Al-Midan (The Square).
[2]Al-Midan, 1:29:07f
[4]Ebd. 8:03f | 1:17:09 |1:39:04f.]
[5]Ebd. 1:34:41.]
[6]Ebd. 57:06 | 59:01.]
[7]Human Rights Watch. 2014. All According To Plan, pp. 5f.]
[8]BBC. 2014. Egypt Country Profile. Update: 29 May 2014.]
[9]Al-Midan, 1:08:34f.]
[10]Ebd. 1:29:07f.]
[11]Ebd. 1:17:09.]
[12]Al-Midan, 45:04f.]
[13]Ebd. 1:59f.]
[14]Ebd. 5:21]
[15]Ebd. 46:29f.]
[16]Ebd. 1:16:31]
[17]Ebd. 15:43]
[18]Ebd. 1:37:52]

List of References
- BBC. 2014. Egypt Country Profile. Update: 29 May 2014.
- Human Rights Watch. 2014. All According To Plan.
- Jehane Noujaim. 2013. Al-Midan (The Square).

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