Last summer, the 2011 Egyptian revolution was brought to UK screens through Ibrahim El-Batout’s sober drama Winter of Discontent (2012). It was a film that suffered from a significant sense of anachronism by the time of its release culminating, as it did, with the inherent hope of the now famous demonstrations in Tahrir Square. An appended statement alluded to the continuing troubles, now placed front and centre in Jehane Noujaim’s absorbing documentary The Square (2013). Picking up where El-Batout’s film concluded, it chronicles the struggle of the country’s revolutionaries since the birth of the Arab Spring.
The eponymous Egyptian plaza plays a central role as Noujaim explores the significance of who controls Tahrir Square throughout the ongoing struggles of (primarily) three different men involved in the demonstrations. Leading off from the initial toppling of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in 2011, it seeks to elucidate the continual power shifts that provide an informative backdrop to the realities of fighting for democracy and equality in a hostile environment. Young Cairo native Ahmed becomes a strong voice for change over the course of the three years, as does successful actor Khalid Abdalla. Even more interesting is the inner turmoil faced by their friend and Muslim Brotherhood member, Magdy, arguably the documentary’s true star.
Throughout the Mubarak protests, Magdy forms a bond with his fellow activists but he finds himself conflicted when the Brotherhood begins to negotiate with the ensuing military regime. It becomes a violent opposition after the religious party wins parliamentary and presidential elections. His story offers a differing perspective on the situation that explores the complexities of the issue given the singular viewpoint espoused by the likes of Ahmed and Khalid. Although it’s with the revolutionaries that Noujaim’s sympathies clearly lie – as will those of the majority of audiences – the film also takes care to confront the reasons that they find themselves in perpetual revolt. “We’re like someone who did really well in an exam, and then forgot to write their name,” claims one man when discussing the dispersal of the people after Mubarak’s fall.
The streets are their ballot paper, they say, and they can muster support against the heinous regimes governing them but are unable to provide a concrete alternative. This is all explored from within Tahrir Square which does mean that the documentary does have limited scope in being able to provide people with a definitive overview. What it is able to do is give a vital and vibrant look at what being a part of the revolution was and is like. It presents the frustrations with the jubilation, the aggression with the suffering, the power with the impotence. The Square gives full-throated support to the continuing drive for democracy that is ultimately still in its infancy. It equally highlights just why the Egyptian people seem to be living by an enduring slogan: “The people demand the downfall of the regime.”