Bright Lights Film Journal

Recording the Rhythm of Change: A Rhetoric of Revolution in The Square

Khalid Abdalla (l) and Ahmed Hassan during "phase one" of the revolution

“The problem with the media is that they oppose change, and turn people against the revolution,” Khalid tells his dad. His Quixotic character is evident: “I am going to keep exposing them. And they’ll keep exposing themselves, until the corrupt media falls.” At which point the father waves him off: “What are you going to do? Start a television station?”

This essay analyzes the documentary The Square as an artistic epresentation of an Egyptian version of the “Arab Spring.” I focus on: 1) the narrative strategies the film employs; 2) the film’s rhetoric of revolution as characteristic of a film and fiction about revolutionary movements. My rhetorical analysis is that of an outsider, and yet it bears emphasizing that the film is, in important ways, an effort by “Westernized Egyptians” to narrate dramatic changes in Egypt to a global audience. Director Jehane Noujaim is Egyptian American, and producer/principal character Khalid Abdalla is a Cambridge-educated British Egyptian actor, so the film in its conception was aimed at an international audience outside the Middle East and North Africa.

Idealized expectations of transitions to democracy during the Arab spring were naïve, Abdalla observes.”The rhythm of change is certainly not linear,” he has said. Unlike “a nice Hollywood movie,” the film dramatizes a rather quixotic determination to “keep going” despite failures. My focus is on how The Square narratizes this “rhythm of change” through three characters. Noujaim calls Ahmed Hassan “our secular revolutionary,” and he plays a role something like a Shakespearean Fool.

Hassan’s friend Magdy Ashour voices the tempered idealism of Islamists who have a conflicted kinship with secular patriots. The third character, Khalid Abdalla, offers a quixotic meta-commentary. As the revolution moves into an “Occupy” phase, a fourth character, Tahrir Square itself, begins to decenter human aspirations. This traffic roundabout – a rounded square – comes to symbolize some contradictions of the Egyptian Revolution.

Prologue: Who’s Afraid of the Arab Spring?

The Square, directed by Jehane Noujaim (Control Room), emerged as the people’s-choice voice of the Arab Spring in 2013. Appearing in a series of cuts as events unfolded in Cairo, the film won the Sundance Film Festival’s Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary and the People’s Choice Documentary Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. Netflix acquired streaming rights to The Square1, and the film was nominated for an Oscar. Although The Square lost out to 20 Feet from Stardom for the “Best Documentary Feature,” it has garnered international acclaim as the go-to representation of the 2011 Egyptian revolution.

As the film’s reputation grew, so did attempts both to censor it (in areas that still fear the afterlife of the Arab Spring) and attempts to bypass such censorship. Such counter-currents have both political ramifications and, for this writer, personal dimensions.

A million people in Egypt have seen the film as of February 2014, Noujaim reported, although Egyptian censors had not allowed it to be screened. Noujaim notes: “We naively tried to take the pirated sites down, but each would multiply. We found about 50 links with about 40 to 50,000 viewers each, another 250,000 on BitTorrent, plus Vimeo. Thousands signed up on Facebook pages for screenings in coffeehouses and private screenings. In Ukraine, 5,000 people watched it.” Her colleagues in Cairo heard: “We’re sorry to pirate your film – we promise to buy it when it’s on DVD – but how is it fair the rest of the world gets to see it and we don’t?” Noujaim and her producers decided to stream an Arabic-language version of The Square in Egypt.2

On the eve of the Oscar awards, Noujaim said that she had been unable to bring several key characters from the film to the awards ceremony, including the “lead character” Ahmed Hassan, who was refused permission to leave the country; Ramy Essan, the “singer of the revolution,” also could not get permission to leave Egypt; and Magdy Ashould was in hiding, because his group the Muslim Brotherhood was again being persecuted.3

While teaching as an assistant professor of English in Saudia Arabia, I could not access Netflix. However, people began posting The Square on YouTube. But then my own colleagues joined in the attempted censorship parade, when a “Faculty Travel Funding committee” voted against releasing funds for my trip – apparently the first such vote in its history. The chair of my own department voted against the proposal on the grounds of the “political sensitivity of the content.” Another colleague joined forces on the de facto censorship on what he called “the precautionary principle.” All this occurred on the same day that the university’s parent organization, the King Faisal Foundation, announced a lecture “The Results of the Arab Spring Revolutions” (Feb. 17) by French journalist Dr. Alain Gresh.

After that lecture, I was called into my Dean’s office. After being cautioned against discussing dangerous ideas such as freedom, I stressed that this was a rhetorical analysis of a film. I have a track record of writing about the film and literature of revolutionary movements – from abolitionism, to the Mexican revolution, to The Battle of Algiers.

My analyses of these texts have been attentive to historical and cultural contexts, but I have been most interested in a critique of the Romance of Revolution. A critique of romanticized conceptions of revolutionary change is in fact central to the rhetorical strategies of The Square itself. It is part of a growing recognition that the “Arab Spring” itself may be a “misnomer” spawned by “the romantic notion that emerged just after the Tunisian uprising” (Muahser 38).

Khalid Abdalla

As public relations efforts for the film went mainstream, the Cambridge-educated British-Egyptian Khalid Abdalla, star of The Kite Runner, became a spokesman for The Square‘s more philosophical ambitions. In a Fall 2013 interview, Abdalla assessed the public’s idealized expectations of transitions to democracy during the Arab Spring, and the fitful one-step-forward, two-steps-backward process that the film so accurately captures. He noted:

The rhythm of change is certainly not linear. [It’s not] like in a nice Hollywood movie . . . Change is [less about] the high points [than] the low points. It’s about what happens when you are thrust into a failure, and yet despite that, you keep going.4

The Cast of Characters

Ahmed Hassan

Like any good documentary, The Square gives the impression of fidelity to reality, while at the same time employing a highly stylized structure. Noujaim decided to tell the story through three characters. One, Ahmed Hassan, she describes as “our secular revolutionary.5 As the son of a vegetable vendor from a poor quarter of Cairo, Hassan functions as the “voice of the people.” The film’s international audience seems inclined to read Hassan, who carries the bulk of the film’s narration, in literary terms. “In the literary universe of Egypt’s Revolution, Hassan is its Shakespearean Fool.”6

Magdy Ashour

Hassan’s counterpart is Magdy Ashour, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and father of four. Through their friendship, The Square is a somewhat tragic tale, with Hassan eventually telling Ashour that “I love you but I hate the Muslim Brotherhood.”7 But in the first phase of Egypt’s revolution-on-the-square, the scenes of brotherhood between Magdy and the secular activists are moving, especially when we learn the price that Magdy has already paid for seeking change: with beatings, jail time, etc. Through Magdy’s eyes we see both the enormous potential of Islamic-secular coalitions and the great obstacles confronting efforts to extend such alliances beyond the “utopian present” of the revolution’s “honeymoon” phase.

The friends experience the collective “waves of joy that are in some ways painful to watch,” as Kenneth Turan puts it.8 This moment is painful, because viewers know that the overthrow of the dictator Hosni Mubarak is ephemeral. The revolution will be betrayed – which seems to be “written in the book” of revolutionary movements. Like some fraternal version of Romeo and Juliet, we know that Ahmed and Magdy will suffer a painful split when the Egyptian military installs Mohamed Morsi as president.

“Please collect your things…”

The third character is Khalid Abdalla, the son and grandson of Egyptian dissidents. Khalid represents the interconnectedness of a new generation of Egyptians. With knowledge passed on from his Cambridge family, and from participation in global media, Abdalla acts like a chorus: “a revolution happens when things are bad,” he says. Therefore, being “thrust into a failure” yet rising to fight another day takes on a Quixotic character. Although he is a modern-day Quixote, in part, Abdalla also embodies the Egyptian revolution’s turn towards performativity. He faces the international media’s cameras – “he screens footage of police violence to fellow protesters in the Square, dubbing it ‘Cinema Tahrir.'”9 Abdalla poses as a “real revolutionary,” but he is always intent upon this revolution’s performative value. This is not to say that his version of the revolution is any less “authentic” than that of Magdy. But it is the viewpoint of an outsider, directed to a global audience. After interrupting his life in London to join the revolution on/in The Square, Abdalla founded the Mosireen Collective, “a group of filmmakers-turned-revolutionaries” dedicated to “documenting” the Tahrir Square protests. Within a year, the collective’s YouTube channel had become “the most watched non-profit channel in the world with over five million views.”10

I want to discuss a clip (about 30:00-32:15) that occurs during Phase Two of the Egyptian revolution – after the romantic heights, when Khalid’s father, via Skype in England, calls the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak “one of the great revolutions of mankind.” Even an Egyptian general on TV salutes “the revolutionaries who lost their lives.” Fireworks go off above the square, and for the moment, the power of the people seems greater than the people in power.11 But although the dictator was replaced, the same “pyramid structure” of power remained in place. Outside of the utopian moment of a revolution’s premature climax, the protesters begin to discover that their words are no match for institutional power. Like most protesters, they resort to slogan – one hears the word “revolution” over and over, in various ways, but with diminishing effects. Observes Khalid Abdalla: “The main way of communicating is through slogans.”

From Utopian Protest to Strategic Theatrics

In this context, Noujaim and her crew switch rhetorical gears. They allow military leaders to speak; at times this is a needed dose of reality. A Major Haytham is filmed driving, while he comments sardonically: “Today, anyone can pretend that they were heroes of the revolution. We were in the square. You know the type.”

Ramy Essam after being tortured

Even footage of the brutally tortured back of Ramy, the “singer of the revolution,” demonstrates how the would-be revolutionaries are increasingly resorting to theatrics. Viewers are taken in and out of a computer screen, on which the footage of Ramy has been uploaded, to the “real” shots of Ramy – i.e., the footage before it has been edited for dramatic effect on the internet. So when Ramy says, “They beat me in lots of different ways,” the viewer may infer that those involved are also thinking: “We can gain political mileage by representing such beatings in lots of different ways.

The retreat into theatrics becomes explicit in the next scene, which is framed by Khalid, the film star, attempting to reframe their would-be revolution as a battle of images. As Khalid walks/rides in a car, he argues: “The battle isn’t just the rocks and stones. The battle is in the images. The battle is in the stories.” Addressing a room full of “digital guerrillas,” Khalid tells them: “We decided to create a space which supports those fighting for the revolution, through video and various types of media. . . . We should film as much as we can. The truth is that things are moving quickly. We don’t know when this footage can be used as evidence.”

Jehane Noujaim has spoken in interviews on this notion of protective filming. When the rest of the international media had left, people often asked her and her crew to keep shooting, because they felt that this was their only protection. So the crew ended up shooting a vast amount of footage that was extraneous to the narrative that survived in the “ready for prime time” cuts.12

With this “real-life” background in mind, some of the camera-centric statements of the film’s characters may seem less melodramatic. Ahmed insists: “If people are being fooled, then we must film everything and show them the truth. As long as there’s a camera, the revolution will continue.” This is the point at which the revolution as a political force has been derailed, and can now operate only as theatre, or spectacle, or as commentary. The focus on the media apparently not onlysplits friends but spawns dissent within families.

Khalid is shown talking to his dad again, still in the hospital. This scene shows how the center of political gravity has dramatically shifted away from the would-be revolutionaries. “The problem with the media is that they oppose change, and turn people against the revolution,” Khalid tells his dad. His Quixotic character is evident: “I am going to keep exposing them. And they’ll keep exposing themselves, until the corrupt media falls.” At which point the father waves him off: “What are you going to do? Start a television station?” (31:35)

The tone of Khalid’s father is derisive – to him, that is not a real revolution. But for many in Khalid’s generation, that is precisely the frontline in the struggle for change. The performative shift was perfected by the Zapatistas, but one can find deeper roots – in Network, the Patty Hearst saga, etc.13

In contrast to the romantic rhetoric of the performative revolutionaries, Magdy is pragmatic. He grows in the viewer’s esteem. Magdy is the only main character who has to deal with a family life, and who is not part of a non-leftist organization. To his leftist friends, he argues: “Revolution means total change, a government accountable to the people.” One of the “secular revolutionaries” engages in the following critical self-reflection about the “mistake” of leaving the square: “We’re like someone who did really well on an exam, and then forgot to write their name on the exam. So you have no idea who it belongs to.” “Hijacking the Revolution”14

In reality, revolutionaries seldom learn to “sign their paper,” or learn how to gain a foothold to hold politicians responsible, as Magdy says. The degree to which they remain in thrall to a disembodied, idealistic myth of revolution becomes increasingly evident in the middle of The Square, during which the organization of the Muslim Brotherhood becomes ever more apparent. Those who recently counted the Muslim Brothers as their allies begin to accuse them of “hijacking the revolution,” with a repetition revealing a “near-hysterical anxiety” (Muahser, 90).

The Muslim Brotherhood take over Tahrir Square, demonstrating their disciplined organization.

But the visuals here tell a different story. The Muslim Brothers fill a vacuum. When they kneel to pray in Tahrir Square, a camera from on high reveals the poetics of their movement, a beauty of organized, disciplined movement. This largely theocratic order, however, cannot contain the whole of Magdy’s emerging multicentered identity. He has made alliances and friendships that were unimaginable prior to the occupation of Tahrir Square. Now this expanded sense of kinship begins to pull Magdy outside the Brotherhood’s frame.

Magdy, torn between two sides, shows up to a protest in hard hat. “The Brotherhood told me not to come. I told them, ‘No one is going to stop me from following my conscience. It is your right to banish me from your group, from your party. Banish me and my whole family.’ But they have no authority over me.” He adds: “It’s all over. They know Magdy is in the Square.”

Ahmed asks: “Magdy the revolutionary? Not Magdy the Muslim Brother?”

“Yes, the revolutionary. I want to tell the Brotherhood that the protestors who are sacrificing now are the only reason they have any voice in this country. Elections or not, our revolution is still not over. Nothing has been accomplished yet.”

This too is a rhetorical position – which is questioned by the females in Magdy’s family. His wife accuses him of “playing revolutionary.” He concedes that he has gained nothing. What “we gained from the revolution” is that his daughter cries.

Those who fought for change are forced to watch as the military and the Brotherhood both claim to have facilitated the revolution. A bearded man tells Ahmed: “The Brotherhood made this revolution.” Ahmed responds: “The Brotherhood was not there in the beginning.” But of course that depends on what is considered “the beginning.” Major Haytham is revisited for some counter-spin: “The revolution in two words? A revolution that removed a regime. Before the people destroyed it.” The interviewer asks: “Did the Army protect the revolution?” “We didn’t protect the revolution, we made it happen.”

Ahmed’s response is increasingly irrational fury. Storming away from an encounter with the Brotherhood, he shouts: “Take the Square or anything else if you want. The revolution is coming, no matter what!” Here it becomes evident that the rhetoric of revolution has become more important for characters like Ahmed than actual political change, while for Magdy, the rhetoric of revolution is precisely what has come to seem ineffectual, and in fact damaging to what he holds dearest: his family.

Squaring the Three-Act Structure of The Square

These three characters the film primarily focuses on move through a “three-act structure”15 – 1) the romantic phase of the revolution capped by Mubarak’s resignation; 2) the army seizes power; 3) Mohamed Morsi becomes president in June. The participation of the three main characters is central to the film’s narrative structure. Their commentary shapes the audience’s reading, yet as the revolution moves into an Occupy phase, a fourth character, Tahrir Square itself, begins to decenter human aspirations.

 

The square is in fact “a traffic roundabout that has come to symbolize both the dreams and the failures of the Revolution.”16 The square-as-roundabout prestructures the film’s nonlinear representation of the inevitable fate of revolutions: like the revolution of a planet, there always seems to be “an element of both rupture and return” in revolutions, with a seemingly inevitable “return to its point of origin,” as Carlos Fuentes wrote.17

Postmortems

The representational turn by those who longed for revolutionary change was perhaps inevitable, since as Khalid notes when he introduces Cinema Tahrir, the physical place – Tahrir Square – is a “site of symbolic power.” But as something like the chorus of the film, Khalid also voices moments of critical self-reflection. In a conversation with friends, he remarks pointedly: “Politics is not the same as a revolution . . . We don’t know how to compromise.”

However, some of the idealist spin rings true. Back on the streets (June 20, 2013), Ahmed asks rhetorically: “What is revolution?” His answer is that revolutionary theatre has the power to change consciousness – the very ability to believe that change is possible. “Revolution is not simply replacing a regime. Revolution is a culture of a people.” What the people have gained, he surmises, is that “we were able to introduce the culture of protesting.” Observing children who have taken up his slogans, Ahmed argues: “Our revolution’s weapon is our voice. [T]he revolution’s biggest victory [is] that kids today play a game called ‘Protest’ where some kids are playing revolutionaries and others play Police or army or Muslim Brothers.”

The film also conveys something of the Egyptian revolution’s other potential to seed a sea change in consciousness. During the anti-Morsi protests, Christian and Muslim women are shown side by side, having created a new iconography that speaks to their potential alliance.

“Muslims and Christians are one hand” (demonstrators have cross & crescent)

Perhaps most impressive is an aerial shot of millions of Egyptians streaming into Cairo, demanding Morsi’s ouster. A reporter says: “This could be the largest demonstration seen in the history of the world.” The computer pans away and across a long bridge jammed with protesters.

The protests to force Morsi out of power in 2013 were described as the largest in history.

In thinking about the legacy or the afterlife of the Egyptian revolutionaries portrayed in The Square, one might point to a screening of the film in Maidan Square, in the Ukraine. But then, knowing what comes after is hardly inspiring, although it too may be an example of the “rhythm of change” that contemporary artists are still struggling to represent. For the present, one might agree with Time reporter Ishaan Tharoor: “the heroes of The Square may have brought about an epochal change, but they appear to be helpless to control it.”18

“The heroes of The Square may have brought about an epochal change, but they appear to be helpless to control it.”

In a more philosophical mode, The Square confirms that only rarely do revolutions “jump their tracks” so that a new script can be written. The rhetoric of revolution employed by Noujaim, Abdalla et al. manifests “a recognizable global style . . . of youthful disaffection,”19 and as such is part of the performative turn in post-Cold War revolutionary movements. This disaffection, both spontaneous and stylized, makes good copy, and good theatre. On whether or not it can lead to a new script of how government “of the people” serves the often conflicting interests of its citizens, the jury is still out.

Sources

Anderson, John. “Shooting History: Additions Required. ‘The Square’ Tries to Keep Up with Unrest in Egypt.” New York Times (Oct. 17, 2013).

Anderson, John. “Filmmaker Noujaim Talks Sundance Winner Egyptian Revolution Doc The Square.” Indie Wire (Oct. 23, 2013).

Appelo, Tim. “‘The Square’ Filmmaker Leaks Oscar Nominee Online, Risking Egypt Censors’ Wrath.” The Hollywood Reporter (Feb. 14, 2014).

Fuentes, Carlos. “Revolución. In En esto creo (In This I Believe). Mexico: Seix Barral, 2002.

Ghonim, Wael. Revolution 2.0: The Power of the People Is Greater Than the People in Power: A Memoir. Houghton Mifflin, 2012.

Hernandez, Brian Anthony. “Egyptian Stars of Netflix’s ‘The Square’ Can’t Attend the Oscars.” Mashable (Mar. 2, 2014)

Jenkins, Mark. “Egypt in Crisis, and Its People in Focus.” NPR (Oct. 24, 2013).

Mitsuit, Evan. “Egyptian Revolutionaries Show No Signs of Giving Up, Says Documentary Filmmaker.”CBC News (Sept. 15, 2013).

Muasher, Marwan. The Second Arab Awakening and the Battle for Pluralism. Yale UP, 2014.

Rothe, E. Nina.”Jehane Noujaim’s The Square: The People Demand the Fall of the Regime.” Huffington Post(Oct. 23, 2013).

Scott, A. O. “Brave Optimism of Tahrir Square Meets Other Fierce Forces.” New York Times (Oct. 24, 2013).

Stelter, Brian. “Netflix Acquires Streaming Rights to a Highly Praised Documentary.” New York Times (Nov. 4, 2013).

Tharoor, Ishaan. “Oscar-Worthy Documentary Shows How Egypt’s Revolution Fell Apart.” Time (Oct. 25, 2013).

Tharoor, Ishaan. “Oscar-Nominated Documentary The Square Takes on a Political Life of Its Own.” Time (Feb. 27, 2014).

Turan, Kenneth. “The Square Bears Witness to Egyptian Revolution.” Los Angeles Times (Nov. 2, 2013).

Zeitchik, Steven. “Sundance 2013:In Egypt Doc The Square, a New Kind of Muckraking.” Los Angeles Times (Jan. 24, 2013).

  1. Stelter, 2013. []
  2. Appelo, 2014. []
  3. Hernandez, 2014. []
  4. Mitsuit, 2013. []
  5. Anderson, 2013. []
  6. Tharoor, 2013. []
  7. Jenkins, 2013. []
  8. Turan, 2013. []
  9. Tharoor, 2013. []
  10. Mitsuit, 2013. []
  11. Ghonim, 2012. []
  12. Bring Your Own Doc: The Square, Egypt’s Revolution Doc withSundance Winner Dir. Jehane Noujaim, TheLipTV (Jan. 29, 2013). Interviewed by Ondi Timoner. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ON8M24CEdYA. []
  13. Gregory Stephens, “The Poetics of Indigenismo in Zapatista Discourse: Revisioning the Mexican Revolution through Mayan Eyes.” Spanish Literature MPhil thesis, University of West Indies-Mona, 2008; “Pertenencia Mutua: Dignifying Death and Honoring Mother Earth in Zapatista Discourse,” Ometeca: Humanities and Science #17 (Spring 2012). []
  14. “Revolution Hijacked – Egypt.”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GCC2IJbxYA8 []
  15. Zeitchik, 2013. []
  16. Tharoor, 2013. []
  17. Fuentes, 2002: 203. Translation mine. []
  18. Tharoor, 2014. []
  19. Scott, 2013. []